“These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise”; to all Star Trek enthusiasts, Trekkies, these are the words instantly recognised at the beginning of every episode. Created by Eugene Wesley Roddenberry Sr (1921-1991), the first episode of this iconic television series was broadcast on June 3 1969. Eugene Roddenberry would be familiar with and greatly influenced by the work done by a fellow American Edwin Powell Hubble (1889-1953). However, the latter’s interests lay more towards the science fact rather than science fiction.
Edwin Hubble was one of those very annoying people who are good at everything they put their minds to without appearing to try; physicists who are excellent guitarists, athletes who became surgeons, and so on. In the case of E P Hubble, he broke the Illinois high jump record while at Chicago University studying mathematics and astronomy, then received a BSc degree and was awarded a Rhodes scholarship which he used to study Roman and English law at Queen’s College Oxford. Returning to the US, he turned down a position at the Mount Wilson Observatory to join the army, becoming a major and serving in the 343rd infantry division in France and Germany in WW1.
Andromeda: outside our galaxy?
He returned to the US again and took the post offered earlier at Mount Wilson, and following his marriage decided to concentrate his vast mind on the universe. He took photographs of one particular cloud-like patch of light that appeared to be the size of our moon. This had been observed by others many times and some had even suggested the unthinkable, that there may be something outside our galaxy, but general consensus was a cloud of luminous gasses within our galaxy. It was given the name Andromeda Nebula – nebula is Latin for cloud. Edwin was not convinced and was sure he had seen flashes of light within the cloud.
In 1924, he went “where no one had gone before” and discovered Cepheid variables within the Andromeda galaxy; these are stars that pulsate in brightness and diameter. With the use of mirrors and trap doors he was able to calculate that the nebula was indeed outside our galaxy.
In 1929, he discovered the ‘red shift’ which works in the same way as the doppler effect we often experience when, say a train passes at speed, the frequency of sound appears to drop as it passes. This is because the sound waves it creates while travelling towards a stationary observer are compressed, and as it is travelling away the sound waves are elongated. Edwin discovered that the frequency of light omitting from distant galaxies had a red shift showing that they were travelling away and therefore proved that the universe was expanding. Into what? We may ask, and we may keep on asking.
At the time of Hubble’s discoveries there was not a Nobel Prize for these particular categories, and Nobel Prizes are never given posthumously, therefore he never received what would surely have been fully deserved.
The Hubble telescope
In honour of Hubble, a telescope was launched aboard the space shuttle Discovery on 24 April 1990. After initial setbacks and repairs, the Hubble telescope was able to show images of more things that could before only have been imagined by the most imaginative minds.
Measurements from the Hubble telescope were able to finally determine that the Andromeda Galaxy and our Milky Way are on a collision course and in five billion years, give or take, they are set to pass through each other. The assumption is that there is so much space between the stars that it is unlikely that any will collide while passing. That is of course subject to Britain achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 which if we fail will surely result in the total destruction of the universe.
The vastness of the universe
These distances are nothing. Our galaxy (The Milky Way) contains 100 billion stars; in numbers this looks like 100,000,000,000, most of these stars are bigger than our sun, and that is just in our own galaxy. When it comes to galaxies then things become unimaginable, if it wasn’t already. The estimated number of galaxies range from 100 billion to 2 trillion, and if you like noughts this looks like 100,000,000,000 to 2,000,000,000,000. That is a lot of noughts and a lot of galaxies, each sun within their respective galaxies probably having its own solar system.
Travelling these distances in any form of propulsion that we can imagine, even travelling at the speed of light, is impossible. We have landed on our moon and sometime in the near future we will be able to provide some sort of permanent settlement which will in turn make Mars easier to populate, but that’s it. Any further out we would have to pass the gas giants of Jupiter and Saturn, where nothing will survive, and travelling inwards towards Venus and Mercury it gets very hot or surprisingly very cold, a bit like our deserts.
Humans seem quite unsuited for space
For example on Mercury, the planet nearest our sun, the temperature during the day is 430 degrees Celsius and at night it’s minus 180. That is hotter than the melting point of zinc and/or lead; this would mean that our damp proofing on our roof would trickle into the guttering, and then at night it would solidify, causing blockages in the downpipes and sewage systems, a nightmare. It would be of little consequence for long; the night-time temperature is approaching the freezing point of nitrogen, there is no known material that can withstand that sort of temperature variation that would protect man or machine.
If we found ourselves outside any futuristic space suit, we would not be able to call for help as without an atmosphere sound cannot travel. Our screams would be silent, that’s a joyful thought init. The only way that we are able to hear people talking in space is because of an artificial atmosphere created in their space stations and suits and the magic of microphones and loudspeakers.
Did I mention the vastness of the universe?
Our solar system sits three quarters of the way out from the centre of this image of the Milky Way, and even though we are travelling through space at about 200 kilometres a second, or 448,000 miles an hour, it takes us around 230 million years to orbit the Milky Way. The first form of human life, perhaps “not as we know it Jim”, is thought to have first appeared on earth between three to five million years ago; therefore our sun, along with the earth and all our solar system, has travelled less than the length of the dash ‘–‘ across this image of the Milky way in the time our first ancestors roamed the earth. There is an unimaginable amount of space and time out there.
A quote from Arthur C Clarke (who also knew a thing or two): “Two possibilities exist, either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”