Light travels really quickly. As a youngster, I discovered, while standing at the edge of a lake, that I could see a man splitting maple for his winter fire, about a half-mile distant on the opposite shore, swing a sledgehammer, and a short time later hear the hammer hit the steel wedge he used to split a maple log. Even at that distance, the disparity between the speed of light and the speed of sound was easily measurable, though at my then young age it was merely a curiosity.
I look “up” into the night sky and look at light reflected from stars so far away some of them have not existed for millions, maybe billions, of years.
In October, space observers discovered a rock cruising through our solar system like a teenager cruising through a mall. By the time they noticed it, the chunk of space debris already had passed our sun, heading away from it at more than 85,000 miles an hour. The asteroid – those who discovered it have named it ‘Oumuamua – is about one-quarter mile long and estimated 10 times as long as it is wide, a needle-like rock ejected several billion years ago from its home planet like a perpetual-fueled vessel, just to pass by and let us know that there is a there way out there beyond our imagination.
As I write this, Saturn lies just ahead of that space-needle. In another week or so, it will leave our system, its speed and distance making it once again invisible to even the most powerful Terran telescopes.
I don’t remember how it felt on being ejected from the sightless world of Mother’s liquid-filled womb. I was present, of course, as were all of us, respectively, but we are endowed with forgetfulness. A researcher on the radio said when a child begins to talk in whole sentences, he forgets he was ever unable to thus communicate. I think it’s like that for a baby who has not discovered the difference in distance between the colored shapes he cannot quite reach near his head and the similarly colored shapes across the room. In both cases, they are simply out of reach.
I imagine it to be like sitting in the darkness, looking up at the night sky and seeing stars, all about the same out-of-reach distance from my grasp. To my eyes, Mars and Alpha Centauri – the nearest star system to mine – are about the same distance from where I sit, 155 million and 26 trillion miles, respectively.
The comet I most remember was Halley’s, which last passed by in 1986 on its 75-year cycle. In it came, looping around our sun to slingshot back to the far reaches of our galaxy.
Every evening for more than a week I crested a certain hill on my way home and looked up to my left. There it was, looking just like in the pictures, a mere 39 million miles away, appearing stationary, although it, in fact, was hurtling along at somewhere between 60,000 and 93,000 miles an hour.
There is a lot of space out beyond our atmosphere, and it is chock full of stuff.
In one of his songs, “Aurora Borealis,” country music star C.W. McCall told of a camping partner who looked up and commented, “Smog, clear out here in the sticks.”
“Hey, Joe. That’s not smog; that’s the Milky Way,” he was told.
Which isn’t milk at all, but the reflections of millions of rocks in the limitless bounds of our celestial neighborhood, some of which occasionally cross out path.