Chapter 4-1

New Windows in the Sky

Astronomy has undergone a tremendous burst of discovery thanks to our new ability to study the universe through "windows" available to telescopes flown above the Earth's atmosphere. We are observing radiation that never reaches the ground: X-rays, gamma rays, ultra violet, and infrared light. Each new telescope in space brings the universe into clearer focus and reveals objects and phenomena not even imagined when the telescopes were planned. We are seeing further than before, with greater sensitivity, and at wavelengths of light that are utterly invisible to observatories on the ground.

Observing this heretofore unseen radiation, we are exploring what amounts almost to a new universe. X-rays and gamma rays from matter heated to millions of degrees tell us of violent explosions both in our own galactic neighborhood and as far away as the edge of the known universe. At the other extreme, infrared telescopes discern clouds of dust in interstellar space whose temperatures are scarcely 50 degrees above absolute zero (-273 C). We have found places in our own galaxy where enough matter to make a planet apparently disappears into a black hole each day, and there are far-off galaxies where more ravenous black holes may consume whole suns every day. At the very edge of the observable universe is a wall of frozen fire, the remnant of the Big Bang of creation, which appears to us as a whisper of radiation just a few degrees above absolute zero. No light from behind that wall can ever reach us, but the wrinkles in the wall remain to tell us the very details of creation itself, if we are clever enough to understand them.

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