Dust to Dust

“The reappearance of the crescent moon after the new moon; the return of the Sun after a total eclipse, the rising of the Sun in the morning after its troublesome absence at night were noted by people around the world; these phenomena spoke to our ancestors of the possibility of surviving death. Up there in the skies was also a metaphor of immortality.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos


My science fiction and fantasy tends to have theological or spiritual angles, and this post is no different.

But first, meet SOFIA:

photo credit Alexander Golz

This is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy—a retired jetliner modified to carry an astronomical telescope.  Originally built to service what the airline industry calls “long, thin routes”—ultra-long-range segments that attract relatively few passengers per week, the airplane is a specially shortened version of the ubiquitous Boeing 747.  It was built for Pan Am and christened Clipper Lindbergh by none other than Anne Lindbergh on the 50th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s takeoff, destination Paris.

After service with Pan Am and United Airlines, the future airborne observatory was retired to a desert boneyard to await her date with the scrapper’s torch—but fate intervened.  In 2008, after restoration, modification, and the installation of a German-designed and -built infrared telescope, the reborn aircraft was again christened Clipper Lindbergh on the 80th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris, this time by Erik Lindbergh.

SOFIA is jointly funded by NASA and DLR, Germany’s national aeronautical and space research agency.

photo credit NASA/Jim Ross

Here you can see SOFIA in flight with the telescope port fully open.

The reason for lofting the telescope to the base of the stratosphere is that water vapor strongly absorbs the infrared frequencies of greatest interest to astronomers, and by flying at 39,000-45,000 feet above sea level the observatory eliminates 99% of the atmospheric water vapor between the telescope and the celestial objects under study.

At the center of most, perhaps all, galaxies there is a supergiant black hole.  Some are quiescent and some are quite active, and observations recently made by SOFIA enabled astronomers for the first time to calculate the median size of the dust particles being drawn into the active black holes; it turns out that they’re about the size of sand grains.

But where do these dust particles come from?  Most of the universe consists of hydrogen and helium, not the more complex atoms that fill out the periodic table and make life interesting—and possible.  It’s now generally known that the complex atoms are thrown, like grains of rice at a celestial wedding, across the galaxies by novas and supernovas.

photo credit NASA/SOFIA/FLITECAM team/S. Shenoy

Here’s SOFIA’s “before and after” portrait of supernova 2014J, the 10th supernova discovered in 2014, nestled in its galaxy.

At one time supernovas were believed to be simply more dramatic novas, but the more recent understanding is that they result from very different processes; in fact, they’re quite distinct.

Their gifts to the universe are, likewise, quite distinct.  Supernovas provide us with the heavier elements that are the building blocks of the cores of rocky planets—and a single supernova can produce enough dust to form 7,000 Earths.  Novas, by contrast, provide us with the middleweight atoms—the ones that are essential to all life as we know it.

photo credit NASA/CXO/Lau et al

Belief systems the world over are fond of telling us of one deity or another dying that we may live and be redeemed.  We now know they’re almost right about this after all:  let us reflect that stars died that we might live and that we might have a world on which to live . . . and that, in a very real sense, we and our Earth are, indeed, heavenly.

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