The Final Frontier
Updated: Oct 19, 2020
“Space: the final frontier…”
Some of us might remember the phrase as part of the introduction of a few Stark Trek television series. It was about looking past our solar system and going out to the stars. Who and what we, as a species, might find once we’re able to break the bonds that keep us tethered to our precious blue planet? To perhaps to travel at speeds that won’t require generations to get to the next star system or whatever we find as we venture out into the inky blackness of deep space.
I’ll keep this picture (below) large so you can hopefully see the pale blue dot (on the right side of the picture). In 1994 American astronomer and science writer Carl Sagan was quoted as saying “Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
For me this picture is not only of Earth from roughly 3.7 billion miles away as Voyager 1 cruised out of the solar system, but it is a powerful reminder of what it means to be human in the 21st century. We are a civilization capable of launching crafts into the “interstellar sea” with a “message in a bottle” and capable of contemplating its place in the universe. Sagan called the launching of the Voyager probes with their golden record, in the hopes that they’d be intercepted by an intelligent species “hopelessly quixotic” and it might be...
But that record isn’t just for any beings that somehow intercept the Voyager probes, but for the beings those probes left behind; it means something to those it left behind. Yes, we are but a tiny blip in vast in an almost-infinite universe but that doesn’t and shouldn’t mean we’re not connected to it all. To be human means to be part of a living, breathing planet, part of a vast cosmos. Look up at the stars tonight and you’ll see them not as they are, but as they were. When you see a star, you’re looking into the past. Light travels 183,000 miles per second, so you’re not seeing the sunlight as it is at the current moment, rather you're seeing the light that left the sun eight minutes ago, or the time needed to cross the 93,000,000 miles of space from the Sun to Earth! This constant speed means that anytime you look into the night sky, you're looking into the past. However close-to-the-present, as in seeing Jupiter (43 light-minutes away) or really-far-from-the-present like the Bubble Nebula (also known as NGC 7635) is (7,100-11,000 light years away), space is a time-machine of sorts, one you can use.
Consider Polaris, the North Star. Sitting at roughly 323 light years away. The light that you’re seeing from Polaris, left the star in 1697. 1697! While you try to imagine life in 1697, try to think back to New England and Massachusetts, specifically September 18 of that year. On that late summer day New Hampshire became a county of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This was less than 80 years from when a group of Pilgrims established Plymouth (Rock) Colony just to the south of Massachusetts Bay!
You’re a part of that, you’re connect to that. A being in some distant star system could be looking at OUR star, wondering if any of the detectable planets circling a small, yellow G-type dwarf, star has life. They would be seeing the light that left our sun as it was many hundreds or thousands of year ago. What would they see if they could, if they were over 66 million light years away? They would see the dinosaurs roaming around!! When we look up at the stars and Milky Way, it’s easy to feel small or insignificant, distant from it all. But we're not, you’re not, I’m not. We are all part of a group of beings capable of great horror and great triumph, capable of looking out, wondering "What's out there?" and sending probes out to visit the places we can only see through our telescopes.
Remember that as you look up at the night sky the next time. You might be small compared to it all, and far, far away from the closest star system but you’re still connected to and part of it all. You're along for and part of the greatest ride in human history, one through space and time! Who knows what's out there?