National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Earth & Spirit
Issue Date:  September 12, 2003

Web site is treasure chest of God’s imagination


Many of us have been searching the skies at night lately, looking for the red planet Mars, at its closest proximity to Earth in 60,000 years. Back inside, a mouse click or two on the computer keyboard will bring you a gift from the Internet: a photo gallery, updated daily, with snapshots from our solar system and beyond.

The stellar nursery known as M17, the Omega Nebula
-- Photos by NASA

It’s the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) site at -- type in that convoluted string and prepare to be flabbergasted when a breathtakingly spectacular color photo appears on your screen.

Every day the site is updated with a new image. Accompanying text explains what you’re looking at in lay terms, key phrases hyperlinked to further elucidations. At the bottom of the screen is a link to the APOD archives, containing hundreds of past photos.

The APOD archive contains the largest collection of annotated astronomical images on the Internet. It’s coordinated, written and edited by Robert Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell, professional astronomers who spend most of their time researching the universe.

Nemiroff is a professor at Michigan Technological University, while Bonnell works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington.

It’s a picture album of God’s astounding creation. Here’s just a small sampling of its marvels and wonders.

  • Valles Marineris, the Grand Canyon of Mars
    Aug. 24, 2003: The largest canyon in the solar system cuts a wide swath across the face of Mars. Named Valles Marineris, the grand valley is more than 3,000 kilometers long, spans as much as 600 kilometers across, and delves as much as 8 kilometers deep. By comparison, the Earth’s Grand Canyon is 800 kilometers long, 30 kilometers across, and 1.8 kilometers deep.
  • April 22, 2003: Springtime on Mars. Towering volcanoes, sprawling fields of ice, deep craters and high clouds can all be seen in this astonishing picture of the solar system’s fourth planet. The orbiting robot Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft took the mosaic of images as springtime dawned in northern Mars last year. At the top is the North Polar Cap, made of thawing water and carbon-dioxide-based ice. Swirling white clouds and circular impact craters are also visible.
  • April 25, 2003: A close-up of M17. The photo, made by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows fantastic, undulating shapes that lie within the stellar nursery known as M17, the Omega Nebula, some 5,500 light years away from us in the constellation Sagittarius. The picture spans about three light years across.
  • Springtime in northern Mars
    Aug. 10, 2002: A composite photo of the Earth at night, taken from an orbiting satellite. Human-made lights mark the developed and populated areas of the Earth’s surface. Particularly dark areas include the central parts of South America, Africa, Asia and Australia. It graphically demonstrates the impact of human activity on the planet.
  • May 7, 2001: Portrait of one hundred kilometers of terrain on Venus, our nearest planetary neighbor. Made by digitally merging distant photographs from height-sensitive radar. You can easily see the hot and cracked surface and its gnomic, rolling hills. The surface of Venus is so hot and oppressive that robot spacecraft landed there have lasted only a few hours.
  • July 6, 2002: A stunning photo of Io, a Jovian moon, traveling across the vast, subtly colored landscape of the gas giant planet Jupiter.
  • May 10, 2002: Close-up portrait of a rocky asteroid that looks exactly like a dog bone.
  • Aug. 3, 2002: Our galaxy’s center. A premier high-resolution view, this startlingly beautiful picture covers a region around the galactic center, at the edge of the extremely bright object labeled Sagittarius A, suspected of harboring a black hole a million times the size of our sun. Along the galactic plane are tortured clouds of gas energized by hot stars and bubble-shaped supernova remnants, hallmarks of a violent and energetic cosmic environment.
An image of Mars taken Aug. 26 from the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit around the Earth

Awesome and wondrous, these photos remind one of the Old Testament Book of Job, where Yahweh appears to the afflicted man; a voice out of a whirlwind queries him: “Can you fasten the harness of the Pleiades, or untie Orion’s bands? Can you guide the morning star season by season? Whose skill tilts the flasks of heaven? Can lightning flashes come at your command and answer ‘Here we are’?”

Job answers: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear but now my eyes see you.”

The APOD site is a celebration of the Wisdom that created all things, a treasure chest of images illustrating God’s fecund imagination and breathtaking creativity.

The Hasidic teacher Rabbi Bunam said that “a spiritual seeker should carry two stones in a pocket. On one should be inscribed, ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ On the other, ‘For my sake was the world created.’ And the seeker should use each stone as needed.”

The vastness and majesty of that created world is available and on display on the Internet every day.

Rich Heffern is a frequent contributor to NCR. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 12, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: