At Seattle Pacific University’s 10th Annual Day of Common Learning, astronomer Jennifer Wiseman of NASA, spoke to students, faculty, staff, and the public about “Stars, Galaxies, Planets, and Life: An Amazing Universe to Behold.” She also spoke with Response about astronomy’s latest discoveries, the future of NASA, and why it’s important for Christians to become scientifically educated.
Here, she shares more details about her own research, as a senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as highlights of other discoveries.
Your research is about the formation of new stars. What are you discovering about how stars form?
A lot of people don’t realize that stars are not stagnant. They come and go. In fact, stars are continually being produced in the interstellar clouds of very dense gas. Occasionally, you’ll get a pocket of gas that’s dense enough to collapse under its own weight. And when that happens, a new star emerges. A star is a ball of compressed gas, mostly hydrogen, that has high-enough pressure at its core to ignite fusion — when hydrogen atoms combine to form helium and release light with each one of those reactions.
We can see these juvenile stars at every stage of their formation process, especially with the newer telescopes we have now that allow us to peer deeply into these clouds in wavelengths like infrared light and radio waves. We’re able to see infant stars on their way to becoming fully mature stars, and that in itself is quite humbling and exciting.
Yes, there are vigorous studies going on of our own solar system simulating how our own planets might have formed in a disk of material around the sun just as we see these disks of dense gas and dust forming around other stars as they mature. The idea is to try to understand how our solar system formed, and whether that is similar to or different from these other solar systems that we can actually observe in the process of formation right now.
Many scientists are both observing these other star systems to learn about them, and also simulating on computers how our own solar system might have formed out of those same types of disks of material around the sun and ended up with the planets and asteroids and comets that we now have.
One is finding a planet that is like earth in terms of being a similar size to Earth and having an atmosphere like Earth’s. Within the next few decades we hope to find something like Earth, if it’s out there.
Another discovery we’re hoping for, especially with the new James Webb space telescope after it launches, is to see some of the earliest galaxies in the process of forming, some of the first galaxies to ever form after the universe began.
With astronomy, we have the capability of something like a time machine, because it takes time for light to get to us from distant objects, and sometimes that time can be billions of light years. The most distant galaxies from us are billions of light years away, meaning that we’re seeing them as they were near the beginning of space and time in our universe, which we believe was about 13.7 billion years ago.
I’m excited about seeing some of these earliest galaxies and comparing them to the galaxies that are closer to us in time and space to give us a sense of this progressive grandeur of our universe.
There’s a third mystery that I think we will be making progress on, and that’s something called dark energy. It turns out that the universe, which we’ve known for several decades to be expanding, is actually accelerating in that expansion. Galaxies are moving away from each other at speeds that are getting faster. We don’t know what would cause that, since gravity tends to pull things back together, not push them apart.
Scientists are going to be looking at this issue very closely to try to find out if there’s something about gravity that we don’t understand, or if there’s some other feature of physics that would allow for this cosmic acceleration. Right now we’re calling it dark energy because we don’t know what it is.