Light Years

As I gaze up upon the night sky in Mersing, I am in awe at the majesty displayed above me. Millions of stars twinkling across the sky, flooding it like pearls on a black canvas. I point my telescope at a specific area in the night sky in the constellation of Orion the Hunter, at a point just below the famous belt of Orion. To the naked eye, it just looks like a small line of stars, but under the telescope another sight emerges; M42, the Great Orion Nebula. Attached to my telescope is a camera that I activate to capture a snapshot of this time and space. The image that develops on my camera shocks all of those around me. The colours, the details and most amazingly the size of the Orion Nebula unfolds out for the audience to see.

A picture of the Orion nebula and its location in the constellation. Note its location just “below” the famous belt of Orion. Photography by: Lim Meng Hwee

What I just captured is the light coming from a nebula 1344 light-years away. Objects in space are so far away that you cannot measure them by kilometres or miles but using time. The light from this nebula took 1344 years travelling at the speed of 300 000 kilometres per second to reach us; that is how far away it is from us. This also means that this photo I took is actually a snapshot into the past, 1344 years ago to be exact. What I am looking at now is how this nebula looked like 1344 years ago, I have no idea how it looks like at the present time. For all I know, the nebula is not even there anymore. 

A shot of our own milky way galaxy. The bright centre is the core of our galaxy illuminated by millions of stars far away. Photography by: Lim Meng Hwee

Almost everything I see in the night sky is just like that – from our next closest star about 4 light-years away, to our galactic centre at an astronomical 26700 light-years away (give or take 1300 light-years). All starlight is light from the past landing onto Earth, allowing us to bask in their wonders. Be it stars, nebulas, galaxies and even the recent picture of the black hole, all that light that I gaze upon comes from ages ago. The further we look into space, the further we are looking back in time. This certainly puts an interesting perspective on the whole idea of time travel, doesn’t it? Every time we gaze into the night sky, we are experiencing a form of time travel.

Our moon at the half full phase. Notice the shadows highlighting the craters on the surface.
Photography by: Lim Meng Hwee.

What about the moon? What about planets? I was asked this as I was scrolling through my photos. The more perceptive ones will know that the moon does not give out light, so how is it so bright? The light is not from the moon itself but is in fact reflected light from our sun. This light takes 8 minutes to travel from the sun to the moon, reflecting off the moon to reach us. Moving my telescope to point at the moon, I observe the craters on the moon, noting how incredibly bright it is. The telescope concentrates the reflected light from the moon, blinding anyone that looks through. Being so close to us helps with the luminosity. That is the same for the planets in our solar system just that they are much further away, and the time taken is longer.

Now next time as you look up in the starry night, know this. The light illuminating the night, creating these incredible images took many years for the light to travel from their source star to reach us in this very moment in time. Creating the picture you see and admire right here, right now.

Somewhere out there, maybe there is another intelligent being looking at the same night sky, seeing the same image, also admiring the events that conspire to create this point in time and space. So remember, when you are feeling tiny and insecure, how amazingly unlikely your birth is.

Somewhere out there beneath the pale moonlight
Someone’s thinking of me and loving me tonight
Somewhere out there someone’s saying a prayer
That we’ll find one another in that dream somewhere out there

And even though I know how very far apart we are
It helps to think we might be wishin’ on the same bright star
And when the night wind starts to sing a lonesome lullaby
It helps to think we’re sleeping underneath the same big sky

Somewhere out there, if love can see us through
Then we’ll be together somewhere out there
Out where dreams come true

Somewhere Out There by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram

Written by Lim Meng Hwee
Illustration by Toh Bee Suan

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