By now, the James Webb Space Telescope has reached its destination one million miles from Earth. It’s in an orbit around the sun, protected from solar radiation by a tennis court-sized shield. In about four months, after all the fine tuning is completed, it will start to send its images and data to us.
It’s not always best to put too much faith in any one thing, but this is what I’m doing with the Webb. I’m desperate for something to wipe clean the disillusionment that keeps growing within me.
I hope Webb gives us a clearer picture about the early universe. I hope it finds ingredients for life in the atmospheres of far distant planets. I hope it shows us that science can be trusted to reveal truth and that truth, rather than being twisted and defiled by so many for so many selfish reasons, can be used to bring us together in a way that benefits all. I hope it illuminates our human potential with a vivid display of what nations can achieve through a shared purpose. I hope it points the way to an undeniable commonality of origin.
For, after all, try as we might to imagine, create and foster our differences, those differences pale in comparison to our commonalities.
And that was what struck me when I took another look at the Beehive Cluster in the constellation of Cancer. Cancer, or the Crab, is faint and hard to find. It looks more like a lopsided “Y” than a crab, but I’m in no position to argue about its name. It’s important, of course, because it falls within the ecliptic, the apparent path of the sun as seen from Earth and, as such, is one of the signs of the Zodiac.
Much more importantly, for me at least, it is home to the Beehive, an open cluster of hundreds of stars nearly 600 light years away. Throughout February and for several months that follow, it is a good target for backyard astronomers observing under very dark skies or with the help of binoculars.
Open star clusters may consist of up to about 1000 relatively young stars. They are in contrast to globular clusters that hold possibly hundreds of thousands of much older stars. The Beehive’s members appear to have been born within the same star-forming cloud of gas and are quite close in age. In short, they’re celestial brothers and sisters.
Stargazers of all stripes have marveled at the sight for thousands of years. Galileo wrote about the Beehive in 1609 and Charles Messier added it (#44) to his famous catalog of deep sky objects in the late 1700s.
So, here are some directions. Go outside around 8:00p.m. Look to the south to find Betelgeuse, the Red Giant that serves as Orion’s shoulder. Look northeast and locate the twins of Gemini, Castor and Pollux. Look further northeast to Regulus, the brightest star in the sickle, or backwards question mark, that forms the head of Leo, the Lion. The Beehive is almost midway between the twins and Regulus. If you’re using binoculars, the fuzziness will give way to a wondrous view of countless stars.
A casual glance at the sky or, for that matter, at ourselves, reveals an unending array of diversity. Like every generation of stars, every generation of people brings something just a bit different to the table, a new dish to the traditional meal. But all those stars in the Beehive, no matter their unique sizes and colors, emerged from the same source. Just imagine if the Webb Telescope can provide more proof of commonalities across the universe, if it can dazzle us with the truth and shake us and remind us that for all our creative differences, at our core we’re quite alike.
If we can come to accept that, maybe our newfound faith in, and appreciation of, commonality will redirect us from these insane efforts to drive us apart and will, I hope, finally be a salve to the disillusionment that threatens to destroy so much.