Now you see it, but it’s not there

"Pillars of Creation" in the Eagle Nebula

“Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula

What you see above does not exist. It did once, and will continue to be viewable for about a thousand years.

The formation is called “The Pillars of Creation”, and consists of gas and matter coalescing into planets and stars, but it isn’t doing that anymore. In fact, it was destroyed about six thousand years before the telescope that enabled us to see it was invented.

Being in a nebula, it is surrounded by stars of various ages. Somewhere around eight or nine thousand years ago, one of those stars went supernova. It was probably visible from Earth. The shock wave from that supernova is estimated to have taken a couple of thousand years to reach the pillars. Since they’re seven thousand light years away from us, we still see the pillars as they existed before the shock wave destroyed them some six thousand years ago. If that star was closer to the Earth than the pillars, we might already have seen the flash, it might have been the one of 6 August 1181.

The sky we see at night is the light from thousands of years ago. Some of those stars have gone supernova, we just haven’t received the light from that event yet.

As we consider traveling between the stars, our concepts of time need to be adjusted. We aim for targets that may no longer exist, or may not exist by the time we reach them. By the time we see the pillars destroyed, there will be other stars that have or are being created that exist behind them that we will be able to see. The universe is not only constantly changing, it has already changed in ways that we can’t yet see due to the speed of light.

Considering the distances involved, this should humble us. We see constellations, because the points appear on a flat curtain of night, when in fact from a different angle, different in the range of the distance of another star to here, those constellations appear differently. When we think of things we see, in fact, the stars that we can see are within our own galaxy. The Milky Way is just an arm of our galaxy.

You are Here.

You are Here.

Other galaxies, such as Andromeda (M31) are millions of light years away. Andromeda was once thought to be a star, until telescopes revealed its nature. When we consider our reach, Voyager, traveling for the last thirty six years, is just reaching the edge of our solar system (the enlarged section of the illustration above).

This is our world. We more than likely will never visit another that we can live on within the span of our species’ existence. There is no running away, there is no escape. Why do we think we can make another world habitable when we can’t manage to “terraform” Earth?

I think that is how it should be. If we can’t make Homo Sapiens work on this planet, why should we foul another?


4 comments on “Now you see it, but it’s not there

  1. Mari Collier says:

    That is true with our present technology. What will make it different? I think that is where such concepts as the string theory and/or spiral universes will come in. Spaceships will be able to go between the dimensions and arrive when and where they want to be. I know this is a simplified explanation, but it is the best I can do.


    • kblakecash says:

      In the world of physics, the word “Quantum” defines the smallest amount of energy for something to exist. Jumping from one level to another was called a “Quantum leap”.

      For human beings to travel between planets would require at least four such quantum leaps. 1) discovering the dimensional barrier 2) crossing the dimensional barrier 3) developing the technology to move humans through the dimensional barrier 4) finding a way to harness the technology for travel. Were we able to move forward that far, certainly we could harness our minds towards making the Earth habitable.

      I am totally behind exploration. The technology that has been shared with humanity that we otherwise would never have discovered pays for the investment in the space program one hundred fold. But even considering our present rate (Horses to planetary exploration in less than one hundred years) we’re just not going to get there before we become extinct, through either damaging our environment, or simply killing each other.

      I had intended to write in the next few days about “big numbers”, this and yesterday’s articles are precursors. Hiroshima was an example of how large the speed of light is (8 grams of matter became 16,000 kilotons of TNT), today is about relative distances. Working with numbers themselves, another precursor was going to be the Federal Budget.

      Science fiction isn’t entirely about fantasy, it is also about hope. A future when we can get along well enough on this planet to engage in trade with other planets involves hope in many different areas. I am filled with hope not only for the destination, but that whether we reach that destination or not we will gain from the attempts.


  2. […] sees is the photons that could never reach us. When we look at the stars, we see them as they were thousands of years ago. We see constellations with no sense of depth, as if the stars were laid out upon a canvas, yet […]


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