Seems like everywhere you look nowadays – in the sky, on the internet, on television – it’s all about Jupiter. The fifth planet from the sun, and the largest in our solar system, is quite deservedly getting top billing.
It is currently the sky’s brightest object (discounting the Moon). So, it was with perfect timing that the new James Webb Space Telescope recently delivered images of the gas giant that displayed auroras over both poles, faint rings circling the planet, and picked up some of Jupiter’s tiny moons in orbit. Its famous great red spot – wide enough to fully engulf Earth – was suddenly white, due to its reflection of sunlight.
This month, Jupiter is easily spotted, rising in the East after sunset, moving steadily across the southern sky, and setting in the West just before sunrise. As various media organizations have noted, this full-night viewing opportunity is due to the planet being in “opposition,” meaning that the Sun, Earth and Jupiter are basically lined up with us in the middle. It also means that the two planets are at their closest to each other. Indeed, this may be the closest encounter in the past 70 years.
This is the brightest and biggest Jupiter most of us will ever see. It’s just approximately 370 million miles away. Stare at it all night long, but remember that it takes about 33 minutes for the reflection of the sun’s light to bounce off Jupiter and reach us. We’re always seeing it slightly in the past.
Now, all of this should be enough to keep any amateur astronomer pretty happy and focused. And, I was…until the Webb Telescope sent down another image that pushed Jupiter into the “nearly casual” category, and challenged my view of distance and time and space itself. As incredible as the views and insights of Jupiter were, they paled in comparison to the photo and explanation of the ringed light of a incredibly old and distant galaxy.
Over a century ago, as part of his general theory of relativity, Albert Einstein predicted a phenomenon called gravitational lensing. Gravity, Einstein said, warps space. Light passing by an object (or several) with immense gravity, he predicted, will be affected by the warping. It will bend.
In Webb’s photo, light from a galaxy some 12 billion light years away, appears as a ring, an Einstein Ring, circling another galaxy that lies between it and us. We are not actually seeing the galaxy, but rather the proof that Einstein was right, that the fabric of space becomes distorted by gravity and alters the flow of light.
Like so much of the physics of astronomy, it is a bit beyond my comprehension. But, what I can understand is that what we consider to be distant, like Jupiter, is really just a stone’s throw away. We’re spoiled when we flip a light switch at home and, instantly, everything is illuminated. For Jupiter, we have to wait over 30 minutes for that illumination. For the galaxy whose light was redirected by warped space, the wait has been 12 billion years.
Here at home, everything around us is finite. We measure it, weigh it, watch it as it grows…or wilts. We think we have a handle on everything. We gain comfort in such a structured world. It’s why, I think, we often struggle so mightily when faced with something new, like climate change or a novel virus.
Perhaps, strangely, that’s why I also take comfort in the infinity of space. I don’t want it compartmentalized. Its mysteries expand even as they are explained. There is always more to discover. There is no imagined sense of security because there really isn’t any security. In space, there’s no reason to be disillusioned by some perceived failure or lack of knowledge. In that sense, it’s liberating. There’s nothing and no one to judge.
Just when we think we know all about Jupiter, we see and learn new details about it. Just when we think we’ve seen the edges of the universe, we’re gifted with the light from a galaxy so far away we can’t possibly imagine anything so old. Who knows what has happened to it in the last 12 billion years. Its light, though, continues to shine. It bends around younger objects, becoming the face of infinity. Seeing it, marveling at it, I believe, lets us be, in a special way, a part of that infinity. That’s the magic of it all.