19 May 2022

Meet the minister fighting space junk

Reverend Professor Lachlan Thompson’s in his space observatory. Picture: Jenan Taylor

Jenan Taylor

12 April 2022

Tackling clutter of celestial proportions from a sloping paddock in Emerald, is all in a day’s work for the Reverend Professor Lachlan Thompson.  

Five years ago Professor Thompson built a space observatory on his property to track the plethora of man-made junk orbiting the Earth.

It had a powerful telescope that would relay data to Austin University in Texas on clear evenings, as part of a small, but pressing, global program to map and predict the movements of debris.

Travelling seven times faster than a bullet, these objects are potentially catastrophic to weather and communications satellites, the International Space Station, as well as planned launches.

Since it was built, Professor Thompson’s observatory has helped map some 5000 of the more than 30 million bits of litter, some no bigger than a box of tissues.

That may not seem like a great deal, Professor Thompson said, but it was helping to find answers to a big problem.

In that sense, for Professor Thompson, using science aligns with doing God’s work.

Professor Thompson was an associate professor of aerospace engineering at RMIT and worked in space research for more than 30 years before he became a priest.

Knowledge of his background seems to be a drawcard for people, he said.

“They do get very curious. Here’s this man of physics, who’s also a priest. What’s he all about?”  And, of course, there’s that question most people ask him –  “Is there life out there?”.

Journey

Professor Thompson felt drawn to the priesthood because people from students to colleagues would line up outside his office at RMIT to talk with him. “I was apolitical and didn’t have a particular interest or position to push. People just seemed to enjoy having a conversation,” he said.

But then he realised people were coming to him not just about research and essay deadlines, but to talk about divorce, children with heroin addictions and other distresses.

He convinced the university that he should do a clinical pastoral care course and started studying theology at Trinity College.

 “It was either do that or a psychology course, and psychology deals with how people think and function,” Professor Thompson said. “It doesn’t necessarily help you to help people see where they fit into life, the universe and everything. The pastoral side becomes quite important because people get to stages in their life, usually in some sort of crisis, where it’s what’s the meaning of life? Why am I here? Why am I putting up with this? What should I be doing? Where am I going? They’re looking for a direction.”

Professor Thompson could relate to their feelings of having their faith challenged.

There was the death of his infant daughter from leukaemia, which was a particularly dark period for him.

Later, there was the very public deaths of seven astronauts when the space shuttle Columbia exploded upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003. Professor Thompson had had close research connections with the fated shuttle so the incident shook him deeply.

He was ordained as a deacon in 2014 and worked at St Thomas’ in Upper Ferntree Gully, before he became a locum priest at St Silas’ in Gembrook and eventually assistant priest at All Saints’ Anglican, Kooyong.

Read more: Earth as astronauts see it set to hang in St Paul’s

But Professor Thompson still turns to science to make things more meaningful for the people at his services.

In giving scientific context to the Bible’s account to the Star of Bethlehem, for instance, he might explain how a one in a thousand year conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and Saturn would have created the stellar spectacle, he said. “The thing is there were lots of comets and the like whizzing about the skies at that time, but what made the people decide that that particular happening must be a sign?  It must have been something very, very special.”

Then there are the other initiatives he attends to, including the climate change related projects for the children of the Indonesia service at All Saints’. From backyard ladybugs to honeybees and elephant toothpaste, they tend to capture the children’s imagination.

“At Kooyong, we would end up with about 60 to 100 people per session. The kids come along with school mates or bring their other buddies,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is get people and young people excited about science. And to get them to understand that science and religion are not against each other.”

On occasion some people still challenge the justification for focusing on space amid a world filled with problems, Professor Thompson said. But they usually changed their minds when they discovered that robotics, infant clothing in SIDS research, and advances in breast cancer detection stemmed from space research applications.

“There’s so little we know. And so much we still need to learn about where we are, how we live, how things work, how the universe works. We mustn’t attack people who want to try ideas, because ideas are good. They give us an opportunity to learn about ourselves, and give us an opportunity to learn about God. Because we ask the questions,” Professor Thompson said.

So, does he think there is extra-terrestrial life?

“There has to be,” Professor Thompson said. “But, in the words of Mr Spock, it’s probably not as we know it.  if you look at statistics and consider that there is life that we thought could not exist at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Those life forms extract oxygen from sulphur dioxide, which is toxic to every creature we know of living on the surface of the planet, which is staggering. So why should the effrontery of man put a limitation on the power of God.”

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