All posts by waynespencer

The Mysteries of Fomalhaut

At a distance of 25 Light-Years from Earth is a trinary star system that has been of much interest to scientists. There has also been a controversy regarding whether it hosts an exoplanet that has been called “Fomalhaut b.” This possible exoplanet has also been given the name of “Dagon” which was the name of one of the false gods of the Philistines in Old Testament times. In multiple star systems if a capital letter is used it refers to one of the stars but if a lower-case letter is used it refers to an exoplanet. Thus, to say “Fomalhaut B” refers to the second star but “Fomalhaut b” refers to the first exoplanet. Scientists never use a lower case “a” in reference to exoplanets. Fomalhaut A is the brightest star of the three and it has a very large dust disk around it. This disk has been imaged recently with the James Webb Space Telescope, revealing that there is much more to the disk than scientists expected. There are three separate rings in the Fomalhaut A disk, which spreads out for 150 Astronomical Units distance from the star. Fomalhaut C also has a disk, but it hasn’t generated as much interest apparently. Fomalhaut C is farther away but it orbits the center of gravity of Fomalhaut A and B. Fomalhaut A and B are just under one A.U. apart and they orbit around the common center of gravity between them. Fomalhaut B is also known as a flare star. It is variable and has very strong solar flares periodically.

The large disk around Fomalhaut A is an interesting study in what our scientific methods can and cannot tell us. In 2008 it was reported that using the Hubble Space Telescope, an object could be seen having moved in the disk between 2004 and 2006. It was believed to be an exoplanet and it was called Fomalhaut b. It was occassionally observed a few other times up to including 2012 and 2013 by various researchers. It was still considered an exoplanet at that time. In fact, in 2015 the IAU completed a contest for allowing people to submit names for exoplanets and other objects. The IAU adopted the name “Dagon” as the official name of exoplanet Fomalhaut b. However, in April 2020 a scientific paper was published arguing that the object called Fomalhaut b had disappeared and showed characteristics of it being a cloud from a collision instead of a planet. So it may have never been a real planet. The Fomalhaut A disk is enormous and probably very thick, so it could hide sizable objects. So there is currently a difference of opinion among scientists on the existence of Fomalhaut b. It can be a healthy thing for us fallible human beings to run into the limits of what we know so we have to deal with something that is uncertain or unclear. Time can clarify things, as we learn more. I do not mean to criticize scientists regarding either point of view on whether Fomalhaut b exists or not. I would lean for the moment toward the view that it was a cloud from a collision and not a planet. But we may have to wait and see what is discovered next.

The picture below diagrams the various rings found around Fomalhaut A. Such as disk is referred to as a “debri disk.” To understand the various comments from scientists on this, it is important to understand the difference between a “protoplanetary disk” and a “debri disk.” A protoplanetary disk has both gas and dust and these are not really observed, though whether there are actual examples might be considered debatable. A protoplanetary disk exists early in the process after the star has formed and planets and other asteroid-like objects may have not yet formed. The gas is believed to be key to the process of planet formation. The presence of the gas is believed to help planet migration happen and it provides gas for gaseous planets. But the gas dissipates or is absorbed by the star or the planets in less than 10 million years according to models. After the gas dissipates away then solid objects and planets may collide, generating dust. So at Fomalhaut, scientists would not expect planets to form from the disk that exists now. But they would expect there to be sizable objects there somewhere because in their view, some type of objects had to collide to generate the disk and its rings. The gaps in the rings are also thought to suggest there are objects that have “sculpted” the rings, forming the gaps. The James Webb telescope uses infrared and zeros in on three different frequencies of light which detects dust. Dust turns out to be rather bright in infrared, but macroscopic objects like asteroids or planets are dark and faint in infrared. At the present time, there is not clear evidence of either planets or asteroids in the Fomalhaut rings.

JWST Fomalhaut image
Fomalhaut A debri disk showing three belts. Source Space Telescope Science Institute.

In trying to take a biblical view of things, I would say we don’t know if God created planets at Fomalhaut or not. God could have created multiple dust rings with no planets or asteroids. The evidence at other stars with disks may be different as well. There is a tendancy in astronomy for scientists to assume a history of the system that we do not and cannot know for sure. Physics can give some insight on how a system may change over time or about the way objects interact. But physics does not necessarily tell us the initial conditions in the beginning. Computer simulations can give insight as well but there is always a limitation of a computer simulation. How can you be sure the simulation represents conditions like those in the real system? Scientists would like to see some confirmation of accepted theories of the formation of extra-solar systems. They would like to find evidence of asteroids or planets so there is an indication that collisions formed the dust rings at Fomalhaut. Fomalhaut’s third ring is about 150 A.U. in diameter; so, this would require multiple collisions of small bodies or a catastrophic collision of a large planet. The burning question raised to scientists is “where are the planets?”

Sometimes God seems to arrange events so as to go against human expectations and humble us as human beings. This brings up an account from the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel. It is ironic that Fomalhaut b was named “Dagon.” I don’t know who suggested this name or why it was proposed. Fomalhaut b appears to not be a real exoplanet and in the story in 1 Samuel, Dagon was shown to be a false god. So there is an ironic parallel in using the Dagon name for this exoplanet. To really get the whole story would require reading 1 Samuel chapters 2-7. But the key part for my purpose is mainly in chapter 5. In ancient Israel there was a priest named Eli who had two sons but his sons were sinful and when Israel’s leaders were corrupt things did not go well for the nation. The Israelite army attacked the Philistines and lost the battle. About 4,000 Israelite men were killed in that battle. So then the Israelites decided to go get the Ark of God (the Ark of the Covenant) and take it into battle. They treated it as if it were like a simple outward rule doing what God required, as if God did not know what they were really thinking. They thought that like in the past if they took the Ark into battle that they would win just because they had the Ark. But God taught them a costly lesson. They took the Ark into battle and the Philistines saw the Ark and were afraid because they had heard the stories of what had happened in the past when the Israelites defeated other armies while they had the Ark. But the power was never in the Ark itself, but in God himself being with them. In spite of their fear, the Philistines fought the Israelites. So in this particular situation, the Philistines, sinful and unbelieving though they were, were showing more awareness in some ways than the Israelites! So in the battle the Philistines won and the Israelites lost 30,000 men! Also, the Philistines took the Ark of God. The Philistines praised their god, Dagon, and they took the Ark of God and put it in the temple of Dagon.

The following morning the Philistines went to their temple and found that Dagon’s statue had fallen on its face in front of the Ark of God. So, the Philistines seemed to think little of it. They sat Dagon’s statue back in its place. Then the next morning when they went back to their temple, Dagon had fallen down again and this time its head and its hands were broken off. This was not a prank from the Israelites. After taking such a beating from the Philistines, no Israelite would have dared to do something like this in the Philistine temple. Then the Philistines seemed to debate for some time what to do with the Ark of God. First, they moved it out of the temple to another city called Gath. But after moving it the people of Gath broke out with tumors. So they moved it once again to the city of Ekron, and again in Ekron there was an outbreak of tumors and people were dying. Eventually, they sent it back to Israel on a cart pulled by two cows. Both the Israelites and the Philistines got lessons in taking God seriously. It is a sobering story.

I’m not saying the scientists looking for an exoplanet at Fomalhaut are like the Philistines (or like the Israelites for that matter). There is nothing wrong with searching for a planet at Fomalhaut. In science there may be different opinions from scientists as research continues. But there is something to say for having a bit of humility and realizing we don’t know everything. The Old Testament contains accounts of many amazing miracles God did in the past. The Old Testament also mentions known people groups, and places and events confirmed by historical evidence. But whether scientists theories are right or wrong, God ultimately gets the last word.

The Grin from Space

On November 23, 2015 the Chandra X-Ray Observatory released the image below, of what’s come to be called the Cheshire Cat Galaxy Group. It is a fun image and is also the subject of scientific research. But it serves as an example of how we human beings look for meaning in things. It reminds people of the Cheshire Cat with its big grin, in the story of Alice in Wonderland. So we associate an astronomical phenomenon with an entertaining fictional story. It has become a popular astronomical image. But more than that it an enjoyable or humorous picture. It has been taken to mean a variety of things by various writers and bloggers. A few days after the Chandra X-Ray Observatory released the image, NASA also released it to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Einstein’s General Relativity theory was first published in November of 1915.

From a naturalistic or atheistic mind set, the universe can seem like an empty harsh place, with no purpose. But if you can accept there being a Creator-God who has made the universe with a purpose for our benefit, that makes it all have more meaning. From the Bible, we find that God has created things for our benefit, to show us His glory and draw us to Him. He wants the universe to stimulate us to ask questions and look to Him. So human beings found this in the sky but it can cause us to wonder about the universe and about the One who made it all. It is something that can be appreciated for both its scientific mysteries and just for enjoyment. There is more to space than just the beauty of nature and the mechanics of how the universe works. In the Good Heavens podcast we try to make things in astronomy meaningful from a Christian perspective.

Cheshire Cat Galaxy Group
The Cheshire Cat Galaxy Group. From the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

What is this Image?

First I must explain what the image is. You might suppose in looking at it that it is someone’s prank, that someone made it with a photo editor program and that it wouldn’t actually look like this image if you saw it in space. The image is of two galaxy groups, that have numbers SDSSCGB 8842.3 and SDSSCGB 8842.4. The SDSS label refers to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which is a major project to map the entire night sky. But the image is a composite of two images, one in visible light from the Hubble Space Telescope and the other an X-Ray image from the Chandra X-Ray space telescope. So, it is not artificially created at all. It just overlays the X-Ray image over the optical visible light image from the Hubble telescope. One “artificial” thing is that X-Rays are not visible to the naked eye, so they are artificially colored purple in the image to make the invisible light visible. To see it in space you would find it in the constellation of Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. If you could see it with the naked eye it would look like the Hubble image. But you’d need a big telescope and a long exposure to capture it. The Chandra X-Ray image used a 19.5 hour exposure time.

The next question is what is it a picture of? The bright objects in the image are not stars but galaxies. Two bright large galaxies make the two eyes of the cat, another makes the nose at just the right place, and you see streaks that make a roughly circular “boundary” that give the outline of the cat’s face. Scientifically it is caused by the two large galaxies (and smaller galaxies with them) that are moving at high speed toward colliding. (The two large galaxies are careening toward each other at about 1,350 km per second. This is about 3 million miles per hour!) There are very hot gases between and surrounding the galaxies that are heated to millions of degrees in temperature. These hot gases are giving off the X-Rays that make the purple color.

Another thing that makes the image well-known and interesting is that it is an example of gravitational lensing. The galaxies in this group are very massive. When you have a massive object or cluster like this and there are other galaxies directly behind it much farther out, the far galaxies light can be bent and distorted by the mass of the massive cluster nearer to us. This creates the streaks that seem to make a rough circle around the “face” of the cat. The galaxies far behind could not be seen without the gravitational lensing effect because they would be along our line of sight behind the cluster we see. There are a number of interesting examples of light bending around massive objects in space like this. Einstein predicted that gravity could bend light in this way even before 1915. Einstein’s theories on gravity have been confirmed in many experiments. Some people have difficulty believing in some of Einstein’s ideas but they have been confirmed over and over. They show that God has made the universe an amazing place that stretches our ability to understand. Einstein’s General Relativity concepts are not about the origin of the universe, they are about how masses and light really behave today in the universe. So this makes gravitational lensing part of experimental science, which we can usually trust. It is in the science of origins where we must be more careful about what we believe.

The Cheshire Cat grin in space has led to many interesting reactions and comments. One webpage showing the picture called it “Alice in Wonderland Meets Albert Einstein.” Another interesting website was that of an artist, Alexandra S. Badiu. She had a page of artwork that sort of puts Alice in Wonderland in an outer space context or with aliens (click here to see) Of course, I would believe God made the galaxy cluster that appears to make the “face” and God made X-Rays possible from it, but that doesn’t mean God somehow inhabits it. God is outside of the universe, not a part of it. Also, the Bible is clear that people should not worship anything seen in outer space because it is all created things. But a smiley face in space is very suggestive to us and stimulates our imagination. Imagination and science are probably more closely related than we usually realize. Appreciating the mathematical or scientific aspects of something in space should not keep us from enjoying something just because it is beautiful or entertaining. In the Good Heavens podcast we try to appreciate multiple aspects of astronomical phenomena and relate it to our faith. Brian May once said, “astronomy’s much more fun when you’re not an astronomer.” (He was a guitarist in the rock group “Queen” but he also had a degree in astrophysics.) But astronomers can also grin at the wonders of the universe.

Mysteries Behind the Grin

The Cheshire Cat galaxy group is technically what’s known by astronomers as a “fossil group progenitor.” A fossil galaxy group is believed to have one large galaxy that is significantly brighter than all the other galaxies near it in the group, and it gives off a lot of X-Rays. This group of galaxies does not qualify as a fossil group yet, but in about one billion years if the two eye galaxies merge together, then it would.

So, what astronomers think happened to this cluster is that small galaxies around the two bright eye galaxies have been spiraling inward making the two large galaxies even bigger. But the “fossil” term means that once the large elliptical galaxy in the center merges, then the cluster would essentially stay the same for a very long time while the gases heated up in the collision give off X-Rays. But there are mysteries about galaxy clusters like this. First, it is believed there must be a great deal of dark matter in these clusters in order to explain how they can cause so much gravitational lensing. So, galaxy clusters are often considered a good argument for the existence of dark matter. However, some fossil galaxy groups even do so much gravitational lensing that even dark matter models don’t provide enough mass to explain them. Another mystery comes up with their origin. From models of the formation of these clusters, in some cases even in the accepted age of the universe (about 13.8 billion years) they would not have time to form. The high temperature of the gases is sometimes a mystery also. These clusters are thought to be very old but in billions of years the gases should cool. So scientists would like to answer some questions about fossil galaxy groups.

In 1969, mankind from planet Earth landed men on the Moon and returned them safely home. That was a great accomplishment. It was an accomplishment which God was not left out of because of the faith of several of the astronauts, prayers for the Apollo program from people on Earth, and many fortuitous events that made success possible along the way. Good Heavens podcasts have shown this to be true in multiple podcasts including interviewing astronaut Charley Duke. But it took many more space accomplishments before mankind could get the Cheshire Cat image. Engineers had to create the Hubble Space Telescope, get it into Earth orbit, and then repair it in order to get the optical image that shows the galaxies and the lensing effect. Then scientists had to get the Chandra X-Ray Observatory telescope in space in order to get the X-Ray image of the same galaxy cluster. How fortunate we have been that God has allowed us to accomplish these things! But mankind still has many problems and needs God’s forgiveness and grace. I think Psalm 8:1, 3-4 would be appropriate to end with:

“O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
. . .
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.”

NIV 1984 Bible, Psalm 8:1,3-4.