How good it is to sing praises to our God;
for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
... He heals the brokenhearted,
and binds up their wounds.
He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure.
Psalm 147 (NRSV)
One of the most-followed areas of study enhanced by the advance of digital technology involves astronomy more advanced than most people care to try and understand but enjoy immensely seeking to appreciate.
The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) is one of the most ambitious and influential surveys in the history of astronomy; over eight years of operations it obtained deep, multi-color images covering more than a quarter of the sky and created 3-dimensional maps containing more than 930,000 galaxies and more than 120,000 quasars.
SDSS data have been released to the scientific community and the general public in annual increments. SDSS-III began observations in July 2008 and released Data Release 8 in January 2011 and Data Release 9 in August 2012.
SDSS-III will continue operating and releasing data through 2014.
The scope of the research is breathtaking and awe-inspiring: Data Release 8 contains all images from the SDSS telescope - the largest color image of the sky ever made. The SDSS used a dedicated 2.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory, New Mexico.
According to the SDSS there are approximately 6 times 1022 stars in the universe. That’s a six with 22 zeros – sixty billion trillions.
The overwhelming stirring such calculations inspire is directly akin to the inner, spiritual awe humans have felt for eons gazing into the night skies around the globe.
While the astrophysical measurement is incomprehensible, the spiritual light experienced by seekers who look beyond the stars into the heart of creation in search of the Creator is discernible.
The poet of Psalm 147 would not have known just how large the universe was, and the poet makes the claim that God names each of the stars individually. The question for people now is, “Can we make the claim that God cares for each of us in a universe so vast?”
Matt Helms, minister to children and youth at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago, suggests, “ ... Despite all this vastness, all of the molecules of the universe would not even be a drop in the bucket of infinity.
If God is indeed infinite, we need not worry about being too small in the universe. We are known, we are named, we are loved – and for that, we are ever-grateful.”