On February 15, a 130-foot wide asteroid, named DA14, raced through Earth’s atmosphere at some 17,200 miles above its surface—a close shave in astronomical terms. Although first observed in 2012, the asteroid has been circling the sun with an orbit similar to that of Earth. Consequently, its orbital path at times will intersect very close to Earth’s orbital path around the sun—as it did earlier this year, resulting in the “close” encounter.
Coincidentally, earlier that same day a meteor crashed through the atmosphere and exploded approximately 12 miles above the Earth’s surface (about 40 miles away from Chelyabinsk, Russia). These flying objects in space (asteroid DA14 and the destructive meteor) remind us again of the sovereign God who guides all things—according to His sovereign will by the greatness of His power. They remind us as well of His coming final judgment ().
Particularly interesting is how God guides by His hand all the heavenly bodies in a marvelously orderly way. Every planet, every star, every moon, and every asteroid moves through space in a specific path that God has ordained and continues to maintain by the word of His power. This morning, as I walked to school, I was greeted by a majestic and beautiful February full moon that was setting just above the tree-line in the western sky. By the time you read this article another fabulous full moon will likely have crossed the heavens. Every 29.5 days the moon runs through its cycle because God continues to work in the creation each day in the same orderly fashion. That is why we call the entire creation the “cosmos.” The Greek word “cosmos” carries the idea of an orderly and harmonious system. The entire cosmos is most certainly this—an interrelated and interdependent creation that operates in a consistent and orderly way. For this orderly creation we give praise to God! The recent events in the heavens pique our interest in the heavenly bodies, as they well should, for the “heavens declare the glory of God.” Many of us have very little knowledge of the heavens. For that reason alone, we do well to devote a few articles in this rubric to this handiwork of God.
Man has studied the stars for thousands of years; however, much of our modern understanding of the movement of the planets and stars is based on observational data collected in the past 500 years. Copernicus (1473-1543) was the first “modern-day” scientist to suggest that the sun, rather than the Earth, is the center of our universe. A Greek astronomer by the name of Aristarchus had suggested the same some 1,700 years earlier, but it was the teachings of Aristotle and Ptolemy (that of an Earth-centered universe) that ruled the day, until the Renaissance era (1500s). Copernicus’ work that proposed his new theory of planets orbiting the sun in circular paths was published in the year of his death, despite his dissatisfaction with his model, as his observations did not match his model’s predictions very well. On the heels of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) spent years taking copious and careful measurements of the positions of the planets and stars. Because he did not fully accept Copernicus’ model, he proposed a “compromising” model—with the planets circling the sun (like Copernicus’ model) but with the Earth stationary. Brahe speculated that the Earth was orbited by the sun (and its planets) and the moon (like Aristotle’s model). When Brahe died, his assistant, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), took over his collection of observations and worked feverishly to develop a better understanding of the movements of the heavenly bodies. He adopted Copernicus’ model of a sun-centered universe, with planets that travelled in circular paths around the sun, but he tweaked the model to have the planets’ paths be ovals (elliptical), rather than circles. This change, among others, became known as Kepler’s Laws, which form the basis of our understanding of the universe still today. As we hope to see in our next article, Isaac Newton later demonstrated that Kepler’s laws could be explained as the result of the gravitational attraction between the various planets and the sun. The work of Copernicus, Brahe, and Kepler was advanced and promoted by the work of Galileo (1564-1642)—a scientist whose name is probably more commonly known than the other three. His contributions centered on his own detailed observations obtained by the use of improved observational tools and a willingness to publish and promote his findings despite the opposition he received. In a relatively short two hundred years, God gave mankind a tremendous catalog of planetary data and a revised and accurate understanding of the orderly movements of the heavenly bodies.
What is noteworthy to us is that for centuries mankind has been able to make very detailed observations of the heavenly bodies. Over centuries these observations have continued to produce data that harmonizes with previous observations and indicates a regular pattern of movement of the planets, moons, asteroids, and the like. This is only because God continues to govern the cosmos in an orderly way. Every day, God moves the planets by His hand in the same way. He does so because in the beginning He created the sun, moon, and stars for a distinct purpose—“for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years” (). Every day, in His providence, He continues to direct the movements of the planets and their moons, in part so that we might have seasons and years and that we might be reminded of His faithfulness.
For Keeping Seasons
For millennia man has made observations and notations regarding the orderly movements of the planets. Of course the most pertinent to us in our lives are the orderly orbit of Earth around the sun—making one complete revolution every 365.25 days; the orderly lunar cycle (29.5 days)—providing the basis for many of civilizations’ calendars; and the daily 24-hour rotation of the Earth on its own axis—giving us the “rising and setting” of the sun. These are all important to us because they are so vital in the identifying of seasons and the marking of time.
Because of the orderly movements of the Earth, we observe four significant dates each year. By the time this article goes to print, the Vernal (Spring) Equinox will have come and gone—the date in which the sun rises precisely in the east and sets exactly 12 hours later in the west (Equinox means literally “equal night”). This date has historically marked the beginning of Spring and a sign for the farmers to begin the preparation for planting. Several months later, the sun will have its highest path in the sky, providing the longest day of the year (Summer Solstice). Later in the year the sun will again rise and set exactly in the east and west respectively, providing 12 hours of sunlight. This date is called the Autumnal Equinox and marks the time in which farmers prepare to gather the crops and people begin to make preparations for winter. Finally, another Solstice occurs each year marking the beginning of winter—the winter Solstice—in which the sun has its lowest path in the sky, giving us the shortest day of the year.
Because of the constant and orderly movements of the moon around the Earth, we typically observe 12 full moons each year. The lunar cycles have been used for millennia, as God intended, to determine the appropriate times to plant or to harvest crops (: “He appointed the moon for seasons”). Since a lunar cycle (the time from one full moon to the next full moon) is 29.5 days, there will be slightly more than 12 lunar cycles per year. Consequently, every few years there will be a calendar year in which there are 13 full moons. That extra full moon is called a “blue moon.” It doesn’t happen very often. (Thus the common saying: “once in a blue moon.”) This calendar year (2013) is a “blue moon” year. Between the summer solstice and the fall equinox, there are normally three full moons. This year there will be four. The third full moon is designated the “blue moon.” On August 20, 2013, be sure to take a look at the full moon that evening. You will observe an orderly but relatively rare event—a “blue moon.”
Because of the consistent rotation of the Earth on its own axis we experience “day” and “night.” God has given us the day so that we can go about our earthly labors, and the night so that we may rest and be refreshed for another day of labor ().
With the orderly movements of the Earth and the moon, we observe the Equinoxes and Solstices; we observe the various phases of the moon; and we observe the glory in the rising sun each morning and have time for work and rest. In all of these we are reminded of the faithfulness of our God, who promised that seasons and days shall not cease (), and every day keeps that promise. Our God is a faithful God!
The order and beauty of the heavens
If the rest of the world in the twenty-first century is anything like American society, there are very few people with an extensive knowledge of the heavens. The American Astronomical Society boasts only about 7,000 members. Of course, there are many more who likely have an interest in the planets and the stars but do not have membership in a society. But beyond a basic knowledge of the universe, many people appear to have little time or interest in learning more. Because of the modern society in which we live, we are more and more removed from certain aspects of the creation. We live in areas that are so lit up with lights we can’t see the stars as vividly as we once could; the past few generations have been an “instant gratification” era in which to sit and take the time and effort to find stars with a telescope is unheard of; we live in a society that busies itself with recreation of other sorts (computers, video games, television, etc.); we use satellite GPS rather than star GPS; we overload ourselves with work and the obtaining of earthly things. The fact is, that despite all the discoveries of man and the abundance of technology, today’s average citizen may actually know less about the heavens than people did hundreds and thousands of years ago.
Have we, in our own day, lost the appreciation for the stars and the planets that David and other saints so often spoke of? Do we really appreciate what the psalmist seeks to convey when he writes, “OLord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! Who hast set thy glory above the heavens. . . . When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” (), or “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork” ( )? We live in a society so far removed from the use of the stars and an appreciation of the stars and planets that we must make extra effort to “consider the heavens” so that we might take the time for contemplative meditation on the greatness of God and the feebleness of man. Take the family outside tonight and look at the expanse of the heavens. Consider the works of God’s hands. Be humbled. Be grateful. Remind yourself and your family of the goodness and of the faithfulness of God. For none can be compared to our God, who hath done such wondrous things. “OLord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! Who hast set thy glory above the heavens” ( ).