The concept of space exploration, exemplified by Star Trek and other portrayals of space travel as well as the possibility of other life forms, began four hundred years ago. The moons of Jupiter, first observed by Galileo, instilled in humanity an inquisitiveness of what lay beyond Earth: “Four hundred years ago, the Italian scientist looked into space and changed our view of the universe.” Those small snapshots of Earth’s solar system, as well as the incredible discoveries that continued into the last century, were an immediate yet isolated reflection of space exploration.
Nevertheless, this final frontier is a tip off the proverbial iceberg in terms of how minute planet Earth, her solar system and the Milky Way galaxy are compared to the vastness of what lies in distant and previously unobservable portions of the universe. Prior to the launch of the Hubble telescope in 1990, the exploration of space was limited. Space travel, such as moon landings and robotic exploration of planets, and telescopic research had been confined to interstellar and within a single galaxy.
The Hubble telescope orbits outside of Earth’s distorting atmosphere captured its first image of the southern constellation Carina and the Carina Nebula located 8,000 light-years away. Similar to a time machine, the Hubble observes not only the present but provides a glimpse into the past and reveals distant stellar phenomena that were previously invisible.
The universe is billions of years old and although humans cannot travel at the speed of light, at least not yet, the light travelling from the Earths sun takes approximately 8 minutes to reach the planet. Therefore, the light from distant objects that the telescope sees is not only how it appears today but also how it appeared when the light first left it. Observations of the Andromeda galaxy, which is 2.5 million light-years away, are actually what occurred 2.5 million years ago.
This year, NASA astronomers discovered a companion star to a rare type of supernova named SN 1993J located in the Messier 81 galaxy, which is about 11 million light-years away near the Great Bear constellation. Also this year, Yale University astronomers using a homemade telescope discovered seven galaxies previously overlooked. Lastly, a team of international astronomers using radio telescopes in North American and Europe recently published their findings of the location of gamma rays emitted during a stellar explosion, or nova.
Galileo’s iconic rudimentary telescope seeded humanity’s curiosity and sometimes self-centered perception of planet Earth, its position within the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy yet initiated the future of space exploration. The modern conception of space exploration adheres to a constantly changing industry, supported by government initiatives but relenting to private funding and commercialized intentions. Similar to the globalization and ease of data transfer, new telescopes are about to revolutionize space exploration as well as humanity’s perception of a universe that is simultaneously shrinking and expanding on the heels of new observations.
In the words of President John F. Kennedy:
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”