Secrets of cosmos draw eyes heavenward

The Ultra Deep Field Image from the Hubble Space Telescope is rapturous.

Over the course of four months in late 2003 and early 2004, the orbiting observatory trained its eye hundreds of times on a speck of the heavens just south of the constellation Orion.

Why this minuscule spot? With relatively few stars intervening between Hubble and the edge of the Milky Way, it gave the telescope an almost completely unobstructed view of infinity.

“Like many of the images we get from Hubble, this one inspires awe,” said Mario Livio, a senior astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland. “In this tiny patch of sky, we can see over 10,000 galaxies. Some of the light reaching us is 13 billion years old. That’s basically a snapshot of the beginning of time.”

” border=0 hspace = ’12’ vspace = ’12’ width = ‘200’ align = right alt=”Michael Hecht”>Hecht studied theoretical physics as an undergraduate at Princeton and as a master’s degree candidate at MIT. Like Livio, the revelations of the first generation of X-ray satellites inspired him to pursue a career in space science.

“But it wasn’t until my teenage son got interested in astronomy that I actually looked at the stars through a telescope,” Hecht said.

Soon after he finished his doctorate at Stanford, Hecht became a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He’s currently managing a team of scientists and engineers that will send a suite of instruments to Mars to assess the potential hazards Martian dust and soil might pose to human explorers.

With a universe of possibilities, what attracted him to the Red Planet?

“Even through a fairly small telescope,” Hecht said, “Mars looks tantalizingly close. And it’s similar enough to earth so that the physical processes are familiar but not quite the same. An apple wouldn’t fall from a tree in quite the same way.”

Hecht’s next Mars project, which will be launched in 2011, will land near the planet’s north pole and deploy a hot-nose drill to extract samples of the Martian ice cap. With any luck, these samples will turn out to be frozen time capsules that reveal the history of climate change on Mars and help us understand changes in the climate on Earth.

This imperative to make a connection between his work on a distant planet and everyday human experience isn’t a sideshow for Hecht; in fact, it’s the main event.

“Scientists are storytellers,” he said. “But often their storytelling lacks imagination. If we can’t get people excited about what we’re learning, what’s the point?”

As the science editor for Parade magazine and the author of over a dozen books on popular astronomy, David Levy is doing his best to make space science exciting for those without advanced degrees in theoretical physics.

Levy’s love affair with space began when he was at summer camp in 1956. On the night of July 4, the homesick 8-year-old was dazzled when he saw a meteor streak across the sky. The sighting was auspicious: Meteor storms occur when Earth passes through the trail of debris left by passing comets, and Levy has made name for himself as a master comet hunter.

“This past Kol Nidre, I discovered my 22nd comet,” he said. “There it was, near Saturn in the early morning sky.”

His most famous discovery was comet Shoemaker-Levy, which spectacularly crashed into Jupiter in July 1994.

Like Hecht, Levy sees an intimate connection between his passion for astronomy and his religious experience. “When I was 11, I was walking home from synagogue on Yom Kippur and noticed the gibbous moon,” he said. “I realized people have been looking up at the same 10-day-old moon on Yom Kippur for thousands of years.”

Levy pointed out that the relationship between Judaism and sky-watching is as old as recorded human history. In a tradition that has been lost in our era of light-polluted skies, a man used to stand outside each synagogue to wait for the darkness at day’s end to reveal three stars — the sign that marked the end of the Sabbath. And the rhythms of the Jewish year take their cue from the moon as it arcs in its orbit around Earth. Thus the lives of ancient Jews were intimately connected to the night sky in ways that are difficult for us perpetually distracted moderns to imagine.

Whether they’re secular or religious, Jewish astronomers are part of a venerable tradition of inquiry and teaching. And the light transmitted by this tradition shines just as brightly in the upcoming generation of space scientists.