Everyone wants to have 20/20 vision. Sometimes, we need glasses to make it happen, but the bottom line is that we want to see everything clearly. We also appreciate having 20/20 hindsight so that whatever it was that has gone wrong can be righted in the future. One can certainly argue, though, that seeing things as they are in the present or as they were in the past can be rather painful. But being purposefully nearsighted or, perhaps purposely blinded, only serves those who would choose fiction over truth.
So, if it’s truth we’re after, the reality is that we only see about 5% of what there is in the universe. NASA reports that about 68% of everything is something called dark energy, and about 27% consists of dark matter. We can’t see either of these, although years of scientific study have confirmed not just their existence, but also the rough percentages of each.
Dark energy is what is driving the accelerating expansion of the universe. Not only is the universe getting bigger, but it’s getting bigger faster than ever. Dark matter appears to be what is holding everything together. It doesn’t absorb light, so it remains invisible.
Imagine if you looked outside your window and were only able to see 5% of what was in your front yard. You’d want to see more. Imagine telling a group of kids that for every prize they found during a search at a local park, there were still nine more waiting for them. How can anyone be satisfied with knowing that so much is still unknown?
In July, after about 20 years of planning, the European Space Agency (with input from NASA) sent the Euclid space telescope on its way to a perch one million miles from Earth where it will use its infrared and visible light cameras to create a map of the universe that may finally bring us closer to understanding dark energy and dark matter. This map will include a catalog of possibly 1.5 billion galaxies. By the end of its six-year-run, Euclid may be able to provide answers to some of the fundamental questions about how the universe formed and how it will continue to evolve.
None of this fact-finding comes cheap—the final cost was approximately $1.5 billion—but, how does one put a dollar amount on the value of discovery, even when there is so much work to be done right on our own planet? It’s a question that must be continuously revisited, especially now that climate change has become so destructive and such an existential threat.
I don’t know the answer. I will, however, continue to look at the wonders of the sky that, thankfully, are visible to us. At the same time, I hope that we somehow find a way to fix the planet as we continue to search for the things that have been hidden from us.
For the next several months Saturn will be a great sight in the southeastern sky. The current tilt of the giant planet will reduce our view of its rings, but they’re certainly still there in all their glory.
The Webb space telescope has recently taken incredible images of Saturn. It has also photographed exciting views of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, an icy world with an underground ocean that vigorously spews geysers into space. These plumes contain all of the elements for life: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus, though no evidence of life on Enceladus has been uncovered.
It all goes back to what we can see and what we can’t. The Webb telescope will soon take an extended look at Enceladus. Who knows what it will find. Just as with Euclid, the geniuses among us have created tools to help us learn more, to shed more light on the unknown, to discover more truths.
So, I’ll look at Saturn and think about Enceladus and choose to believe that our desire for knowledge and truth can and will be used to stop the devastating effects of a changing climate here at home.