Designed for Discovery

Part 2: Earth’s Galactic Position Investigated!

Our planet’s location within our solar system and galaxy is more unique than you could imagine.

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When searching for a new home, a real estate agent will tell potential clients, “Location is everything.” It determines one’s school district, the value of nearby homes, the proximity of stores, parks and many other factors that will affect the value of a house.

One’s address is even more important in commercial real estate. Success or failure is directly tied to a store’s location. The three most important things in business are often trumpeted as, “Location! Location!! Location!!!”

Location in our solar system, galaxy and universe can mean the difference between the lush, vibrant planet on which we live, and a barren wasteland, devoid of life. Though our solar system is remarkably stable compared to others, only a tiny few exist in which life might possibly survive.

The formation of galaxies is said to be a violent and volatile occurrence. Collisions, explosions, combining of planets and the interplay of gravitational pulls come into play. With each budding galaxy, certain characteristics must appear within its solar systems to support terrestrial (rock) planets. Never mind the endless array of characteristics required for life.

A deeper understanding of our universe opens our minds to something greater. Each fact we learn should elicit questions. Could the Big Bang, sheer coincidence or blind chance align to create Earth’s extremely favorable conditions for life of which you are about to learn? Can random processes create anything? Is there a more logical answer?

Our Celestial Neighborhood

The universe is estimated to have ten billion, trillion stars, most having their own solar system. The differences between these systems are great. Some stars are so enormous that their diameter would engulf Mars if they replaced the sun at the center of our solar system. Others are so small that planets with an orbit as close as Mercury would be solid blocks of ice. Some of the more exotic solar systems consist of clusters of stars intertwined in a gravitational dance that allows nothing larger than dust to form in their wake.

Among all this diversity is an uncommon group, known as type G stars. Only an estimated 8% of the stars in the known universe are of this type and fall within the ideal age spectrum. When stars are the correct age, they are neither too hot nor too cold, and create the foundation of a solar system able to support life.

However, the star type is only one factor. Stars must also form in metal-rich nebulae, which in turn produce metal-rich stars, creating the building blocks for the formation of terrestrial planets. Without complex metals, only gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn would orbit a star. (Metals are also required for complex chemical reactions needed for life, but that is outside the scope of this article.)

Even with all of the factors described above, there exists only a small distance from the star, known as the habitable zone, in which life has any chance of survival. If a planet is too close to its star, it is doused with solar radiation. It becomes superheated like Venus, which has a surface temperature of approximately 700 degrees Fahrenheit. There are many other reasons why close proximity to a star would make life impossible, but such intense temperatures prove the point.

Just outside the other end of the habitable zone is Mars. This interesting planet is as close to Earth in characteristics as we have found in the entire universe. However, it is completely unable to support complex life. Its distance from the sun means that a Martian year is 687 earth days. This distance also makes it impossible to sustain liquid water—a fundamental component of life. The temperature range of liquid water largely defines a star’s habitable zone.

Milky Way: The location of our solar system.

In our entire solar system there is only one planet in the habitable zone: Earth!

Yet there are other elements of the Earth’s position that make it unique.

Planetary Security

There is much more to a stable solar system than a planet orbiting inside the habitable zone. The gas giants, or Jovian planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune—serve a critical purpose as well. Their massive gravitational fields attract nearby comets, asteroids and debris, keeping the inner solar system safe. The most dramatic example of this protection occurred in 1994, when the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet collided with Jupiter. Despite the colossal explosions on impact, all evidence of the strike had disappeared within a few months.

If this same comet had struck Earth, little more than bacteria would have survived. Analysis of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact and the moons around Jupiter and Saturn reveal these gas giants have long protected the inner solar system from comets and asteroids that would have annihilated our planet. Their ability to “vacuum” the solar system also removes some of the dust that would make observing our solar system and beyond more difficult.

Calm Among Chaos

Another interesting characteristic of our unique solar system is its relative stability. Much of the universe is far from stable. Supernovas (dying stars), nebulas (star nurseries), black holes, violent collisions and other phenomena make the universe an exciting place, to say the least.

It has been suggested that a solar system would have to be a near-perfect match to Earth’s to have any chance whatsoever at facilitating life. Each planet in our system has a near circular orbit around the sun. Such an orbit is critical! It means the distance between each planet is steady, and interaction is kept to a minimum. Interaction would be particularly problematic if any of the inner planets “brushed” the gravitational fields of the gas giants. Such an encounter could tear Earth from its orbit and send it hurtling into the sun or thrust it into deep space.

Our sun’s age also accounts for Earth’s stability. As mentioned above, a star’s age is crucial for life. This is mainly due to the relatively short period in which a star is stable—its middle life. The beginning of a star’s existence is marked by expansion and violent eruptions; the end, by cooling that would not generate enough heat to encourage simple or advanced life.

The Milky Way

Most are familiar with the shape of the Milky Way galaxy, a disc about 1,000 light years thick and up to 100,000 light years in diameter. Its spiral arms appear as bands streaming off a spinning center and contain between 200 and 400 billion stars. It is nearly impossible to convey the immense size of our galaxy.

If the Earth were shrunk to the size of a peppercorn, the sun would be slightly smaller than a volleyball. The distance between the peppercorn Earth and volleyball sun would be 78 feet. Jupiter would be the size of a chestnut and be 405 feet from the sun. The furthest point would be Pluto. It would be smaller than a pinhead and be over 3,000 feet—over half a mile—from the sun! If you were standing at Pluto, you would not be able to see the sun without binoculars.

NGC 7331, often referred to as “the Milky Way’s twin.”

Let’s go further. If our entire solar system were scaled down to fit inside the volleyball, it would take 1.26 million volleyballs stacked on top of each other just to equal the thickness of the Milky Way! The diameter, or length, of our galaxy is 1,000 times larger than that.

Put another way, it takes light approximately seven hours to travel from the sun to the edge of our solar system. This means it would take light 876 million hours—100,000 years!—to traverse the Milky Way.

Our galaxy’s nearly unimaginable size is not the only interesting aspect. Like our solar system, the Milky Way also has a habitable zone. It is located in a relatively “quiet” area nestled between two spiral arms. This region is primarily defined by the distance from the galaxy’s center. The closer you are to the center, the nearer you are to the massive black hole found there. Extreme levels of X-ray and gamma radiation spew from it, completely eradicating any chance for life. On the other hand, the farther a solar system is from the galaxy’s center, the less metallic its star will be. As we have seen, metals are crucial to the formation of terrestrial planets.

Perfect Viewing Station

Our location in the solar system and galaxy allows for another fascinating related phenomenon: We can observe, measure, analyze and define our galactic neighborhood. Many would not even consider this, but it is extremely rare.

Much of the universe is pitch black. Other locations are densely packed with clusters of stars, making the sky far too bright to observe the vast array of celestial bodies. Is it mere coincidence that we are located in the perfect spot?

It is hard to call it mere coincidence that all the factors to produce conditions for advanced life are directly aligned with the conditions that make it possible to observe the universe. It would take a species as advanced as man to understand and measure the universe—and a galaxy, solar system and planet that is perfectly designed for mankind to develop!

Consider the points covered:

(1) The size of our sun keeps Earth’s temperature in the range necessary for life. The size of our star also does not flood our planet with radiation, which would make it impossible to observe and measure distant galaxies.

(2) Our metal-rich solar system allows for terrestrial planets and advanced life. This rich array of metals allows for technological advancement and the creation of tools to observe our world, solar system and universe.

(3) The location of the habitable zone means that life can flourish under an atmosphere perfect for viewing the night sky.

(4) The gas giants in our solar system are far enough away to shield the inner planets from asteroids and comets. This distance also means they do not block our view or distort observations with their gravitational effects.

(5) Planets in our solar system exhibit rare, nearly circular orbits, allowing the stability required for life. This also means extremely precise relational measurements can be made of our universe.

(6) Distance from other stars in the Milky Way keeps us from being bombarded with deadly radiation. This also means our night sky is dark, making viewing possible. If we were too close to the black hole in the galaxy’s center, X-ray and gamma radiation would not only destroy life but make precise observations impossible!

Each characteristic allows for both life and discoverability! Could this just be an amazing coincidence?

The Source Becomes Clear

Discovering the true source of our galaxy can be determined by looking for telltale signs and fingerprints. The precision and intricacy of our universe point to an over-arching design—and a Magnificent Designer. God’s Instruction Book to man—the Holy Bible—indicates that the Creator of the universe left His fingerprints: “For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20).

All that is “seen” bears the fingerprints—shows evidence—of our Master Designer. He is not only able to create the entire universe and life within it, but design it to be observable, measurable and definable.

By His Creation, we can understand our Creator. If you search for God’s fingerprints, you will be amazed by how often they appear and what you will discover!

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