Dragons, Telescopes, and Treasure

Dragon

This is the remarkably true story of a flying telescope, dragons, adventure and an unfathomable treasure in the heavens.

by Daniel Ray

In October of 2013, a team of dedicated astronomers and astrophysicists took up a fantastical quest to push the Hubble Space Telescope to its limits, to see deeper into the heavens than any previous mission had done in Hubble’s nearly three decades of service. “How deep can we go?” they wondered. “What are the faintest and most distant galaxies we can see with the Hubble Space Telescope now?”[1] And from the imaginations of a core group of scientists was birthed the Frontier Fields mission, a grand celestial adventure that focused Hubble’s sights on the most ancient light in the universe; exotic and enigmatic light that will “set the scene” for the new James Webb Space Telescope to explore after its launch in early 2019.

Quite literally, the Frontier Fields team would be gazing back at the very edges of the visible universe, uncovering a vast array of otherworldly treasures the likes of which boggle the imagination.

One of the targets of the Frontier Fields research is found in the lair of an ancient dragon, a region of the heavens occupied by the ancient constellation of Cetus the Sea Monster. The researchers skillfully focused Hubble on a tiny spot of sky, close to the star Mira, that contained a “cluster” of galaxies. This cluster, formally known to astronomers as Abell 370, is one of some 4,000 galaxy clusters cataloged by the late astronomer George O. Abell over the course of several decades beginning in the late 1950s.

A scene from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit comes to mind here. Recall the scene where the reluctant hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the dwarfs find the entrance to Lonely Mountain, a desolate ruin wherein lay the old and terrible dragon Smaug upon an unimaginably enormous pile of stolen treasures. Bilbo had been hand-selected by the wizard Gandalf for the adventure of dislodging the scaly beast from what was once the home of the dwarfs and helping them reclaim their inheritance. Here now on the mountain’s western edge, Bilbo faced his moment of truth.

He and the dwarfs stood before a small open door in rock, five feet high and three feet wide. “It seemed as if darkness flowed out like a vapor from the hole in the mountain-side and a deep darkness in which nothing could be seen lay before their eyes, a yawning mouth leading in and down. For a long time, the dwarfs stood in the dark before the door and debated…”[2]

A scene right out of a conference room in the Space Telescope Science Institute, perhaps.

Where it seemed like nothing but darkness “flowed out like a vapor from the hole” in Cetus’ lair, Hubble had the eyes to see the treasures which lay within in the perilous pitch-black cavern. The committee that put together the Frontier Fields project, curiously enough, was convened by a gentleman named Matt Mountain, the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute from 2005 to 2015. Mountain used his director’s discretionary time with the telescope to facilitate the project.

Thorin, (one of the dwarfs) in addressing Bilbo at the door’s threshold, could have likewise been addressing Mr. Mountain himself, “‘Now is the time for our esteemed Mr. Baggins, who has proved himself a good companion on our long road, and a hobbit full of courage and resource far exceeding his size, and if I may say so possessed of good luck far exceeding the usual allowance – now is the time for him to perform the service for which he was included in our Company; now is the time for him to earn his Reward.’”[3]

In the spirit of the brave Mr. Baggins, Mountain likewise led his team into the recesses of Cetus’ yawning, vaporous darkness where great treasure beyond comprehension awaited them.

Tolkien’s description of Smaug’s plunder seems presciently apropos for what Mountain and the Frontier team uncovered in Cetus. There in the dark inner chamber “lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light…To say Bilbo’s breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful. Bilbo had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendor, the lust, the glory of such treasure hand never yet come home to him. His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves [sic] and he gazed motionless, almost forgetting the frightful guardian, at the gold beyond price and count.”[4]

This is the glory of a galaxy cluster – a multitude of swirling celestial eddies bunched together like a hoard of treasure, only slightly larger and a tad bit more brilliant and massive! Consider that our own galaxy contains an estimated 200 to 400 billion stars[5] and is some 100,000 light years across. A single light year is approximately 5.9 trillion miles, the distance a particle/wave of light travels in one year, moving at 186,282 miles per second. The incalculable mass of the stars and the great distances are simply incomparable to anything in our own everyday existence on Earth.

Now imagine, if you can, a cluster of these enormous objects. Abell 370 is one of them, a variegated collection of massive, blazing, spiral diadems and precious elliptical jewels piled together the dark recesses of Cetus’s lair. These celestial wonders are so incredibly massive they literally warp the “fabric” of space and create a kind of natural lens that enables Hubble to see what lies beyond them. As the Frontier Fields site explains, “The immense gravity of massive clusters of galaxies warps the light from even-more-distant galaxies beyond, distorting and magnifying the light until those galaxies — too faint to be seen by Hubble directly — become visible. Frontier Fields combines the power of Hubble with the power of these “natural telescopes” to reveal galaxies 10 to 100 times fainter than any previously observed.”[6]

Great and wondrous treasures of darkness.[7]

Dr. Anton M. Koekemoer, a Hubble astrophysicist with over twenty years’ experience with the telescope, oversaw the production of the illustrious images of Abell 370 and the other stunning portraits of the galaxy clusters of the Frontier Fields project. He is also a Christian who sees God’s handiwork in every trace of light captured by Hubble’s cameras. And as Christians, we should too.

A wonderful aspect of many of the Hubble images we produce is that they are intended to show the true colors and features of each scene on the sky. So, in a sense, these images can be thought of as “landscape portraits” of the cosmos, using Hubble as our camera, which we then make available to the world. The variety of colors and shapes in our images are generally intended to appear as they would if they could be seen directly by the human eye, and I sometimes describe these as revealing “God’s artwork on a cosmic canvas.”[8]

Skillfully woven into the gems of Cetus’s celestial storehouse are mysterious, elongated threads of luminous sapphire. According to the Frontier Team these haunting ethereal blue strands are also galaxies.

Far, far away.

“These are actually distorted images of distant galaxies behind the cluster. Many of these far-flung galaxies are too faint for Hubble to see directly. Instead, in a dramatic example of ‘gravitational lensing,’ the cluster functions as a natural telescope, warping space and affecting light traveling through the cluster toward Earth.”[9] One of the most iconic images of distorted galaxies is called “the Dragon” known for its visually stunning serpentine shape. The Dragon is believed to be a large spiral galaxy behind Abel, stretched out along the cluster’s gravitational arc. As Bilbo flatteringly says of old Smaug’s appearance, “Dazzlingly marvelous! Perfect! Flawless! Staggering!” And as God says to Job of Leviathan, “I will not keep silent concerning his limbs, Or his mighty strength, or his graceful frame. Who can strip off his outer armor? Who can come within his double mail? Who can open the doors of his face? Around his teeth there is terror. His strong scales are his pride.”[10]

Why should Christians concern themselves with things like the Frontier Fields project, though? Why take any interest in modern cosmology?

“Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine,” God says to Job. And it seems there is a disproportionate amount of secular interpretations of what lies in and under the heavens today. Our voices need to declare the glory again. Everything, from flying telescopes, to dragons, hobbits, adventures and great treasures of darkness are under the lordship of Christ. Especially us, who are created in His image. “Every man’s [and woman’s] life is a fairy tale written by God’s fingers,” writes Hans Christian Andersen. The heavens are telling of the glory of God. Lift up your eyes on high once more and reconsider who made all these stars. The heavens are a canvas of God’s wondrous majesty and artistry into which He has graciously woven the threads of your story and mine. He too has called us to an adventure of a lifetime, to reclaim our inheritance, to battle dragons and to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever.

Come and see!

[1] J.M. Lotz, A. Koekemoer, et. al. The Frontier Fields Survey Design (Astrophysical Journal, 21 May 2016), 1.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997),, 190.

[3] Tolkien, The Hobbit, 191.

[4] Ibid, 194.

[5] Robert Burnham, Alan Dyer, Jeff Kanipe, Astronomy, The Definitive Guide (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003), 72. Gen. 15:5. “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.”

[6] “About Frontier Fields,” accessed February 19, 2018, “https://frontierfields.org/about/.”

[7] Isaiah 45:3.

[8] “The Scribe – First Person,” accessed February 19, 2018, “http://www.saintjohnsbible.org/promotions/news/pdfs/Summer16.pdf.”

[9] “A Sea of Galaxies in the Final Frontier Fields Views,” accessed February 19, 2018, “https://frontierfields.org/.” Italics added.

[10] Job 41:12:15a.