It is some years now since the first exoplanets were discovered: planets belonging to solar sytems other than our own. Because they are so far away, and because the light from the parent star tends to obscure them, their existence has had to be inferred e.g from minute gravitational effects, or from light effects. But last November the first direct sighting of an exoplanet was released, courtesy of the amazing Hubble telescope. Below is Fomalhaut b, the first visually observed exoplanet, which sits inside the giant disc of dust that surrounds the planet's parent star.
On Thursday, with Jupiter, Neptune and Chiron within one degree of each other, 2 new space telescopes will be launched by the European Space Agency. The Planck Telescope will measure the Cosmic Background Radiation, which is a kind of leftover from the Big Bang, and it will take finer measurements than any previous telescope. It will therefore give us new information about the age, shape and evolution of the cosmos.
The Herschel telescope, with its 3.5m diameter mirror, will be the largest ever flown in space. It is tuned to see the Universe in the infrared spectrum, and can probe clouds of gas and dust to see stars being born. It will investigate how galaxies have evolved through time.
And on Monday, the Americans will launch a mission to fix the Hubble telescope. The Hubble was launched in 1990, under the Uranus-Neptune conjunction of the time, and has transformed our understanding of the universe. The latest fix will make it up to 90 times more powerful than it was originally.
The NASA scientists are using the term 'shock and awe' to describe the results they expect from the upgraded Hubble, but they are American! The British prefer understatement, but then again that can mean you set your sights lower. Hubble has in fact 'shocked and awed' in its lifetime, not just through the fantastic pictures it sent back, but also because it upset our basic understanding of the universe. Previously, it was thought that since the Big Bang, the expansion of the universe has gradually been slowing down, presumably to eventually reverse and end in a Big Crunch. Hubble showed that actually the rate of expansion of the universe is speeding up! It is theorised that so-called 'dark energy' is fuelling this inflation of the universe, and scientists hope that the upgraded Hubble will help unveil further this mysterious force, through observing distant supernovae.
So all this is happening under Jupiter-Neptune-Chiron. I see these discoveries about the Universe as creation myths as much as I see them as 'facts'. The Big-Bang, accelerated expansion, a 14 billion year-old universe, dark energy, supernovae... these ideas are not just dry science, they also feed us imaginatively and philosophically. They are therefore myths.
So Jupiter-Neptune is expanding and giving meaning (Jupiter) to our mythology (Neptune) through Science (Aquarius). Bang in Chiron, the teacher of heroes, and you have the adventurous, ground-breaking spirit it takes to develop and launch these telescopes.
I personally am a bit skeptical about 'dark energy'. It is brought in to explain why the laws of gravity as we know them are not obeyed firstly by galaxies in the way they rotate about themselves (the inverse square law no longer seems to apply at such low levels of gravity); and secondly in the fact that the universe's expansion is not gradually being slowed by gravitational forces pulling it inwards towards its centre.
I tend to think that the real issue is that we don't fully understand gravity, which has always been the odd-force-out in attempts to create a Unified Field Theory. It's a bit like when they used to posit an 'aether' through which electromagnetic waves moved, but they could never measure it, and then Einstein came along and said there is no ether, you're just looking at it wrong.
Be that as it may, I think it's great that the mega-universe is throwing up these basic anomalies in our understanding. They are not just glitches - they are huge. This means that the Universe must be very different to what we think it is. Our mythology is not complete.
So these new telescopes are being launched at a very propitious and powerful time, and therefore seem likely to transform our modern, scientific creation myth. It may also be that another Einstein comes along and throws out the inconclusive 'dark matter' theories and the hugely complex string and M-theories ('the theory of everything') and shows us a new way to understand the universe. Who knows, but Einstein was born under a Chiron-Neptune conjunction; the next conjunction was in 1945, when his work found practical embodiment, to his horror, in the atom bomb; the next conjunction is now - time perhaps for another Einsteinian paradigm shift.
Remarkably, there was also a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Neptune and Chiron in Sept 1945, but only briefly and not so closely. This conjunction occurred in Libra, and in its wake came the UN and the reconstruction of Europe, financed by an enlightened USA. It was a big dream (Jupiter-Neptune) of a fairer, more peaceful world (Libra) that would heal the wounds of the past (Chiron).
The triple conjunction of 2009 is much closer, and occurs 3 times between May and December. A big new dream, with hope for the future, is being launched on all sorts of levels throughout the world. The scientific-cosmological level is just one of them.
Can you feel it? The sense of excitement, the sense of something very new and visionary and enriching waiting to be born.