Theological Reflections On The New Horizons Mission to Pluto

 picture is from nasa.gov

Introduction:                                          Whenever I look at my nine year old daughter, it amazes me to think that on the year she was born, the New Horizons mission to Pluto was launched from our planet. While my wife was carrying our daughter in her womb, we were living at the time in Central Florida. One night we visited some friends who lived close to Cape Canaveral.  Little did we know that the plume of fire we saw disappearing into the night sky was carrying aloft The New Horizons space probe that would give the world its first glimpse at the icy (now) dwarf planet we call “Pluto”.  Think about it, from our planet Earth to destination Pluto is 2.93 billion miles. As a joint collaboration between John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHAPL) and NASA, the mission is simple: to gain new data about Pluto and send back photographs and other relevant information. The remainder of today’s post aims to give a couple theological reflections and musings on the pending significance of the New Horizons mission.

The size of our universe testifies to God’s grandeur

Psalm 19:1-4 states: “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. 2 Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge. 3 There is no speech, nor are there words; Their voice is not heard. 4Their line has gone out through all the earth, And their utterances to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun.” 

The idea of a “tent” for the sun speaks of a stretched canopy of space. I’m certain as information, pictures and video feeds pour in from the New Horizons Mission, questions of all sorts will be raised – both scientific and philosophical. Everytime human beings push the envelope of the frontier of knowledge and exploration, the perception of ourselves alters. Oftentimes what is missing at the table of discussion are the theological implications of such a mission as New Horizons. Whether people realize it or not, the awe inspiring videos and photographs elicit responses that bespeak of human beings as having been created in the image of God (Psalm 8:1-4). The size and scope of our universe is only exceeded by its beauty, with the beauty in turn exceeded by the One Who created it.

The complexity and grandeur of the universe begs two questions: 1). whence came everything we see?  2). to what purpose does such vast expanses  serve? Many dismiss such questions, however such queries emerge from the lips of scientists and people on the street alike. Consider some quick facts below.

1. The gravitational influence of our sun extends over a radius in excess of 10 billion miles, with the New Horizons Mission reaching a third of that distance. Whenever astronomers measure distances in space, several forms of measurement are typically used. Within our own Earth/moon system or inner solar system (comprising Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars), expressing distances in thousands or millions of miles is adequate.

   nasa.gov

However, whenever astronomers begin to get beyond the Asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the numbers begin to rapidly increase.

2. The distance from our planet to Jupiter is over 450,000,000 million miles. To travel to Saturn would be roughly 900,000,000 million miles. The next planet, Uranus, is over 1.6 billion miles and finally Neptune, the official 8th and final fully fledged planet in our solar system, is just over 2.5 billion miles from earth. Once we get past numbers such as millions and billions, Astronomers utilize different units to keep things in clear perspective, which at this point is expressed in units called “Astronomical Units” (or AU). An “AU” is the distance measured between our earth and Sun (93 million miles).

3. Thus to talk meaningfully about the New Horizons mission to Pluto, Astronomers express themselves moreso in “AU’s” than “miles”. As we mentioned at the beginning of today’s post, the mission from earth to Pluto will cover 2.93 billion miles. When we express this distance in AU’s, we find Pluto to be 31 Astronomical Units (AU) distance. The above facts about this historic mission serve to demonstrate just how vast our Solar System and Universe truly are. In this 21st century world we can get front row seats for such historic missions by way of social media and the official website for New Horizons at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/News-Center/index.php.

The discoverability of our universe speaks of Divine design

Notice what Psalm 19:4 communicates – “Their line has gone out through all the earth, And their utterances to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun.”  Notice what the text states about the nature of our universe: it has built in language and decipherable patterns that point to the glory of Divine Design. The Hebrew text underlying Psalm 19:4 refers to “words” and “speech”.

Whenever you look at the mathematical equations that astronomers used in getting the New Horizons’ probe to Pluto, on what basis are those equations? In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton discerned the laws of motion and gravitation which yielded the foundation for modern scientific exploration. Later on, another scientist by the name of Johannes Kepler developed three fundamental laws of planetary motion from observing the motions of planets across the night sky. Then in the 20th century, Albert Einstein developed his General and Special theories of relativity to explain how space, time and light behave in relationship to gravity. These three men’s discoveries can be expressed in mathematical equations that can fill up numerous chalkboards and confound the fastest super computers in the world. 

Now why mention such thinkers and discoveries as these? Because the world outside of the mind has order, pattern and purpose. Whether a Newton, Kepler, Einstein or ordinary people like myself, meaning and purpose would not be possible in a universe derived from chance. The New Horizons Mission utilized the insights of these three scientists and many others to achieve its mission. Yet were it not for the mathematical and scientific laws woven into the fabric of the cosmos by God, then we would not explorers.

As one explores the website from John Hopkins Applied Science Laboratory, the hub of the New Horizons mission, we can see first hand how all of these insights have enabled astronomers to calculate the Pluto flyby. The fact that our universe is discernable, measurable and capable of interaction and discover tells this writer at leaast that it was designed that way. Physicist Freeman Dyson once quipped: “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecturem the more evidence I find that universe in some sense must have know that we were coming.”

Certainly Dyson was no Christian. Yet he could not deny some design and purpose that exceeds the confines of a materialistic, atheism. His observations as a scientist echoed within his soul the truth revealed in Psalm 19, namely that God was the one that made this universe to reveal His glory to a humanity which He had intended on creating. To know such information is one thing, to acquiesce to the God who reveals such information is the aim of God’s general revelation in creation. To aknowledge that same Creator as being the God of the Bible, and that He sent His Son in the likeness of flesh with Whom He shared a common life from all eternity is the result of His saving grace working through His special revelation in the Bible (see Psalm 19:7-14).

Closing thoughts and links for further discovery                                                           Today’s post aimed to give a couple of theological reflections on the significance of the New Horizons Mission. I pray that these thoughts has sparked an interest in readers on considering what the Bible and Christianity has to say in response to such historic discoveries as these. I leave the reader with further links on the New Horizons Mission.

1. http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html

2. http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/

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About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
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