From near the edge of the universe and the beginning of time, a dazzling stream of data will soon flow to the Johns Hopkins campus. It will transform astronomy and, perhaps, mankind's view of itself.
This August, a space telescope will be put in orbit. It weighs 12 tons, is the size of a bus and is more precise than the finest watch. Its optical mirror is eight feet in diameter, and the average deviation of its surface from a perfect curve is less than 11 nanometers (billionths of a meter). It will be a "clean window" on the universe, astronomy unfiltered by Earth's atmosphere.
Astronomy looking through the atmosphere has been likened to "bird- watching from the bottom of a lake." A small "window" was opened in 1983 with an infrared astronomical satellite. The new telescope will see things that are 50 times fainter, and therefore seven times deeper in space.
Just to use the space telescope -- to aim it -- will require astronomy never done before. In a room insulated from vibration, shockproof machines make 7,000 passes up and down photographic plates -- 1,500 of them -- mapping the universe. That is complicated, because our galaxy is composed of bodies in motion; the galaxy is in motion and the universe, which has uncounted galaxies, is expanding.
Earth-based telescopes can observe entities 8 billion light-years away. The space telescope will see at least 12 billion light-years away. It is a time machine for studying light (the evidence of processes) perhaps 85 percent of the way to the "edge" (whatever that might mean) of the universe -- light from events 85 percent of the way back to the Big Bang, the beginning of time 15 billion or so years ago.
Astronomy has exerted a powerful pull on mankind's imagination, and hence on philosophy and theology. For centuries, and until recently, science was considered a subverter of religion. But if a sense of awe about the mysteries and astonishingness of life is the wellspring of the religious impulse, contemporary astronomy could nourish that impulse.
Galileo's discovery, 375 years ago, of satellites orbiting Jupiter was dispiriting to people who thought: If things orbit things other than Earth, then Earth probably is not the center of the universe, and mankind, too, may be a somehow marginal phenomenon. But consider what we are about to see.
The space telescope will peer into space that is dustier and more violent than mankind has thought when speaking of the clear and peaceful heavens. Yet a strange serenity can come from contemplating it.
Early in this century, analysis of light revealed that many galaxies are racing away from us. This fact, and the 1965 discovery that the universe is bathed in radiation, suggested that the universe is still expanding from an explosion -- the Big Bang -- that created it. And there is a wonderful -- literally, a cause for wonder -- balance in the aftermath of the explosion, a balance illustrated by the timely arrival of Halley's comet.
Perhaps the space telescope, by focusing on the most distant (fastest moving) galaxies, can determine whether the universe's expansion is slowing. If it is, this question is posed: Might expansion stop, and there be a collapse? Had the Big Bang been smaller, and the expansion less vigorous, it might have collapsed back upon itself in a few minutes or in a few million years. (Were this mass to re-explode, it would confirm the Oscillating Theory of the universe. The Steady State Theory holds that the universe constantly creates matter as fast as it consumes it, and is eternal.)
Had the Bang been more violent, it might have dispersed the dust of Creation so chaotically that there could have been no organization of matter conducive to lif. (Think how closely calibrated Earth's orbit around the sun must be; how Earth's atmosphere must shield some rays and admit others.)
The continuing consequences of the Big Bang is theologically suggestive because the consequences are staggeringly improbable. Contemporary astronomy strengthens the impulse to believe that, say, Dante's idea of God is at least slightly more plausible than the idea that an accidental explosion caused the dust of Creation to evolve into Dante.
Or Cal Ripken, who plays for the Orioles down the street from Johns Hopkins. Think of it. The state-of-the- art shortstop and state-of-the-art science, both in Baltimore. Was Renaissance Florence in its glory more glorious?