Some years ago, I visited one of my favourite spots in England, on the moors beyond Buxton. I looked out over the valley into Cheshire. The sinking sun was still bright enough to bring out the lush green of the patchwork of fields on the hills to my right. The trees, beautiful in their fresh, May foliage, cast long shadows across the undulating hillsides. Beyond them were more distant hills in the Pennine chain.
What a beautiful world!
In the valley in front of me, the huge radio telescope at Jodrell Bank was pointing into the heavens. I am fascinated by the immensity and majesty of the universe. The next day, I had to drive down from Manchester to Birmingham to speak in a debate at the university. This took me even closer to Jodrell Bank and I had some spare time. So I visited the observatory.
The main telescope (called the Lovell Telescope after Sir Bernard Lovell) has a dish 250 feet in diameter. It is not an optical telescope but a radio telescope, which means it receives radio waves from the depths of space. The biggest optical telescopes could distinguish between a pair of car headlamps from a distance of some 200 miles. To achieve this, a radio telescope would need a dish 25 miles in diameter!
Astronomers have overcome this problem by linking together radio telescopes in different parts of the country. The network links seven observatories including one as far away as the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory near Cambridge. In effect, this is equivalent to a telescope with a dish 150 miles in diameter, so powerful that it is equivalent to an optical telescope which could see a pound coin from a distance of 60 miles.
But there is now a European network of radio telescopes which, in effect, creates a super-telescope with a power equivalent to a dish covering most of Europe, And there are plans to create a worldwide ‘telescope’ with a power equivalent to a dish thousands of miles in diameter. But more powerful still will be a large radio telescope which astronomers plan to launch into orbit round the earth,
Light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. So the light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach earth. We are therefore seeing the sun as it was eight minutes ago. To that extent, we are seeing back into the past.
If you know where to find the constellation of Orion look at Betelgeuse (the brightest star in the ‘top left’). Light from that takes 310 years to reach us. You are seeing it as it was in the 1680s. And if you can find the Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant object visible to the naked eye, you are seeing it as it was 2.3 million years ago.
But radio telescopes have picked up objects so far away that the number of miles is 6 with 21 noughts after it! Light from these objects would take 10 billion years to reach earth, so in effect astronomers are looking back 10 billion years into the past
Driving down the motorway, after leaving Jodrell Bank, I put a classical music tape on, not thinking of its content. The first two tracks were from Holst’s Planets – the aggressive tones of Mars and the pleasant melody of Jupiter. Soon followed that most beautiful piece, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. All in all, a very astronomical drive!
But the climax was when the tape reached the Halleluiah Chorus: ‘King of kings, Lord of lords .. and he shall reign for ever and ever.” The debate a Birmingham University was on multi-faith worship, in which Jesus is so often marginalised.
But God has revealed his eternal power and deity in creation. The astronomers are discovering more of his awesome handiwork. And Jesus ‘ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe (Ephesians 4:10). What a thought – Jesus fills, with his love and power, this vast universe which is more that 12 thousand billion, billion miles across!
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction