by Jeffrey Anderson
Do you remember when you were in elementary school and up on the wall were pictures of the planets and their relationship to the sun? Unfortunately, those pictures did not tell the truth. Yes, the planets’ names are correct, and the sun is at the center of the solar system, but the relationship between them is wrong; it’s not to scale. So, let’s begin at the beginning.
The earth is approximately 8,000 miles across. That’s pretty big. But the sun is roughly 1,000,000 miles across. That’s huge! So already the relationship between the earth and the sun in the pictures is not accurate because the sun is many, many times bigger than the earth; 125 times bigger. Perhaps a better model would be the relationship between a large wagon wheel and a marble. Got the picture in your mind? Okay.
When scientists began to study our solar system they discovered that they needed an entirely new unit of measurement because the numbers simply became too large. For example, the earth is about 93,000,000 miles away from the sun. That’s the diameter of the sun (one million miles across) 93 times! That is enormous. In fact, it’s so large that astronomers decided to use it as a new unit of measurement: The Astronomical Unit (AU for short). An astronomical unit, then, is ninety-three million miles. This means that the planet Venus is a little over 0.7 AU from us; Mercury is about 0.38 AU; and Mars is a little more than 1.5 Astronomical Units away. If we go back to the model of the sun as a wagon wheel and the earth as a marble, the picture would have the two objects apart from each other by about the distance of a football field (i.e., one AU). This is a much closer analogy of the distance between the two bodies and their relationship to each other.
But to appreciate this further, think about the distance between the sun and the dwarf planet Pluto. Pluto is about 40 AU from the sun, and since Pluto is so small, imagine it is the size of a grain of sand. So our wagon wheel sun is roughly 40 football fields away from the grain-of-sand/dwarf-planet-Pluto. From that distance (i.e., 4,000 yards away—about 2½ miles) you couldn’t even see a grain of sand. Those distances are simply remarkable. And yet it’s only the beginning. Once we move outside of our solar system we discover stars that are incomprehensibly far away.
The nearest star that we know of is called Proxima Centauri. It is part of a three-star system called the Alpha Centauri system. But to measure the distance between us and Proxima Centauri we need another unit of measurement: The Light Year. A light-year is defined as the distance that light will travel in a year. Oh, that number is difficult to appreciate! If the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, then calculate the distance that light will travel in one year. The calculation looks something like this: 186,000 miles/sec x 60 sec/min x 60 min/hr x 24 hr/day x 365 days/yr. So, a light-year is 5,865,696,000,000 (5.8 trillion) miles or 63,072 AU. So, the nearest (please note: the closest star, not a ‘distant’ star) is 25,222,492,800,000 (25 trillion) miles or 271,209 AU. That is a number that we simply cannot comprehend. The distance is so vast it defies our understanding. But that’s not all.
Our solar system is part of a much larger group of star systems (i.e., galaxies) called the Milky Way. The Milky Way is a spiral disk-shaped group of over 200, 000,000,000 (200 billion) stars. But there are other galaxies as well. The nearest large galaxy is called the Andromeda Galaxy. It is a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way but is 4 times as massive and is 2 million light-years away. Our galaxy is one of more than a billion galaxies known to us and is traveling through intergalactic space.
A few years ago, the director of the Hubble space telescope decided to take a gamble. He proposed pointing the Hubble space telescope at a ‘blank’ section of outer space. Now the cost to operate the Hubble space telescope is enormous; nevertheless, the director decided to dedicate 100 hours to this risky project in the hopes that he may get ‘lucky.’ Oh, and he got lucky! They discovered over 3,000 new (never before seen) galaxies. Please note, not 3,000 new stars, but 3,000 new galaxies; each one with between 100 and 300 billion stars! We honestly don’t know how many galaxies exist in the universe (much less how many stars), but it is possible that there are over a trillion galaxies, each with 100 – 300 billion stars!
One final image: A few years ago I saw a photograph in a newspaper of a star that had exploded. The star was over 4,000 light-years away, which meant that the explosion had taken place 4,000 years ago. That means that it exploded back during the time of Abraham! It had taken the rays of light 4,000 years to reach earth; 4,000 years before we could see it. That is, 23,462,784,000,000,000 (23.4 quadrillion) miles away. A number so vast we can’t even begin to conceptualize it! It was then that I remembered a verse in Psalms: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him” (103:11). In view of all the incomprehensible miles throughout the galaxies, God’s love is quantitatively greater towards those who love His gospel!
Jeffrey K. Anderson, “Rain,” June 12, 2006.