Since the dawn of history, man has marveled at the mystery and grandeur of the heavens. On a clear night, our own galaxy, the Milky Way, can be seen as a star-studded ribbon circling the sky. The familiar constellations — Orion, the Pleiades, the Big Dipper — probably look the same to us as they did to ancient civilizations long since perished. But what secrets lie hidden in the celestial realm of outer space? And what is man's place in the cosmic scheme of things? To the writers of the Bible, the heavens were awesome testimony to the Creator (Ps. 19:1). According to Job, it was God who spread out the heavens; who made Arcturus, Orion, the Pleiades, and the chambers of the south (Job 9:8-9)."When I consider thy heavens," mused David, "the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him?" (Ps. 8:3-4) In New Testament times, the apostle Paul expressed the same awe and wonder (Heb. 2:6). Yet somehow, in our hurried and harried twentieth-century life, the heavens no longer seem to inspire quite the same feeling of reverence toward the Creator.
Probing the Cosmos
But consider the awesome size and complexity of the cosmos that is revealed by modern science. Our earth is a massive sphere some 8000 miles in diameter; yet our star, the sun, has a diameter 100 times larger than the earth. Viewed from afar, our solar system — the sun and nine revolving planets — would appear as a disk in space nearly eight thousand million miles across. Already such numbers stagger our imagination. Perhaps we can better visualize such incredible distances by an analogy: If we compressed our solar system so that our sun (which is actually over 800,000 miles in diameter) was reduced to the size of a quarter (one inch in diameter), then Pluto, the most distant planet in our solar system, would be the size of a grain of sand located over 400 feet away! And the nearest star? Again on a scale where our sun is the size of a quarter, the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, would be a similar object, 500 miles away! And in between would be the vast emptiness of space. Yet our sun and Alpha Centauri are only two of 100 thousand million stars in the giant pinwheel of stars known as the Milky Way. The Milky Way is so vast that light — which can travel around the world in the snap of a finger — would take 100,000 years to cross from one edge of our galaxy to the other. Such distances are nearly impossible for us to comprehend. Yet suppose we could drastically compress our Milky Way to the size of the continent of Asia. Then our entire solar system — including the sun, the earth, and the orbits of all the other planets — would be the size of a small pebble one inch in diameter. Can you imagine being given the assignment of finding a pebble (our solar system) amid all the millions of square miles in the continent of Asia? Surely it would be far easier to find the proverbial needle in a haystack! Yet even our gargantuan galaxy could be easily lost in the endless expanses of space. For far beyond our Milky Way are additional thousands of millions of galaxies — as common as blades of grass in a meadow. In just the space defined by the bowl of the Big Dipper constellation, astronomers have found nearly a million galaxies, with each galaxy containing thousands of millions of stars and other heavenly bodies.
The Edge of the Universe?
As man reaches out to explore the heavens, will he ever find the end? So far, using the largest and most sophisticated telescopes, astronomers have probed the universe to a distance of over one hundred thousand million million million miles. If we could ride on a beam of light, it would take some ten thousand million years to travel this distance! Still, astronomers have been unable to find the edge of the universe. Perhaps it is endless: no one knows. Indeed, the latest evidence indicates not only that the universe is expanding, but that no known natural forces appear to be sufficient to stop the galaxies from expanding to infinity. Some scientists may be reluctant to accept such a conclusion, but the universe gives every indication of having had a definite beginning, perhaps 15 billion years ago. Cogent evidence points to a unique creation event. Did our universe simply come into being by itself? Or is it the product of divine intelligence? Man has only scratched the surface of knowledge about the heavens. But even this limited understanding has been a humbling experience. The more man learns about the awesome universe, the more evident its Creator becomes.
RECOMMENDED READING The mysteries of the heavens have always challenged the mind of man. Where did the universe come from? Why does it exist? The free color booklet Our Awesome Universe discusses these questions and describes some of the amazing discoveries of modern astronomy.