A Window Into Pluto, and Hopes of Opening Other Doors

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from The New York Times,

During the early hours of July 14, Eastern time, a series of radio waves went out from giant antennas in Canberra, Australia, and Goldstone, Calif., in the direction of a collection of stars known as the “teaspoon” in the constellation Sagittarius.

In a feat of Einsteinian navigation, they caught up, four and a half hours later, with a spacecraft named New Horizons that was speeding past Pluto at 30,000 miles per hour and was ready to phone home. The craft had just slipped into the shadow of the dwarf planet and turned around to look back at the Earth through Pluto’s atmosphere.

It was an extraordinary time for a cosmic selfie, a historic day in space and here on Earth.

If all goes well, New Horizons will continue traveling outward to encounter other denizens of the Kuiper belt, the vast zone of icy wreckage beyond the known planets. But the larger question is what this generation of Plutokids and their peers can look forward to.

With this trip to Pluto, S. Alan Stern, the leader of New Horizons mission, said, humans have now visited all the known worlds, the starry crib into which we were born.

William Sanford Nye, better known as Bill Nye the Science Guy, the chief executive of the Planetary Society, offered his own view. Lacking the will or the resources or the patience to launch an interstellar probe to, say, Alpha Centauri, a star 4.5 light-years and a human lifetime away (assuming we could achieve a tenth the speed of light, which is about 20,000 times the speed of New Horizons), Mr. Nye said it might behoove us to look again at our origins and see them for the first time.

Asked whether he agreed with Dr. Stern that New Horizons was the “capstone” of our reconnaissance of the solar system, Mr. Nye said he preferred to think of the Pluto flyby as having kick-started a new phase of exploration, a search for the end of cosmic loneliness.

“I really want to find life,” he said. “Because if we find life, it would change the course of human history.”

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