While I know there are a lot of things I could discuss in light of all that is around the world, I wanted to switch gears this week and take a few minutes to reflect on the passing of a person I greatly admired.
For a lot of people out there, the death of actor Leonard Nimoy hit on a very personal level. It meant saying a final farewell to a unique individual who created a character that has withstood the passage of time and remains near and dear to their hearts. His portrayal of Commander Spock on the classic Star Trek television series served as a role model for some, who found him both admirable and likeable.
For others like me, Leonard Nimoy's death struck a completely different chord. While I was too young to enjoy Star Trek when it first aired in 1966 (I was born that year), I spent my childhood and teen years fathoming the vision of the television series he helped pioneer.
For one night a week, I no longer had to worry about the dangers and ugliness of our world, which at the time were marked by the war in Vietnam as well as the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. For 60 minutes, I sat back and watched a completely different view of the universe unfold on my parent's television set. I saw a universe where humanity had put most of its differences aside and worked together in the exploration of the countless worlds stretched out across the heavens.
The endless possibilities presented in the show fueled my lifelong love of science, with a special focus on astronomy. By the time I was eight, I was already enthralled by the heavens above us. I remember all the hours I spent sitting on the living room floor poring over my parent's world almanac, which included a complete map of the then-known solar system.
That passion grew even stronger when I was in fifth grade. I still remember one memorable night when my teacher, Mrs. Johns, conducted a star gazing program in a small field behind our elementary school.
Armed with telescopes and binoculars, we looked out to the stars and listened as our teacher helped us identify many of the constellations out there. I especially remember when she pointed out the constellation Leo, since the head of the lion made a very-visible reverse question mark in the sky. It's the same lesson I enjoy teaching others when I go star gazing.
My passion for space exploration grew even stronger as mankind began unlocking many of the secrets of the universe showcased in the television show that I continue to watch to this day. Consider this: When Star Trek first aired, humanity had yet to step foot on the Moon. We were still years away from getting our first up-close looks at the planets in our own solar system. Portable phones were just science fiction, and basic computers filled entire buildings.
That's just the beginning. It wasn't until 1992 -- 23 years after Star Trek originally went off the air -- that humanity confirmed that we were not alone in the universe. Our tiny home is just one of thousands of planets orbiting stars scatted across our own Milky Way Galaxy -- worlds that drift like motes of dust in the morning sky.
Today, we can only guess if any of these worlds harbor life and whether we are just one in countless civilizations out there pondering if they are alone as well. Perhaps those answers are just around the corner waiting to be discovered.
In the meantime, there are a number of answers people like myself are eagerly awaiting. Right now, NASA's Dawn spacecraft is rapidly approaching the asteroid Ceres, which is nestled in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The images the unmanned probe have sent back to date have actually raised far more questions than they helped answer.
From my perspective, that's the beauty of studying the heavens. If we had all the answers, then we'd stop asking questions.
For me personally, the biggest astronomical event of this generation happens July 14 when NASA's New Horizons probe conducts a flyby of Pluto and its moon, Charon. It's been on a nearly nine-year mission through the solar system that began when Pluto was still classified as an official planet. The reason behind it's "demotion" to a dwarf planet is a discussion for perhaps another day.
Out of all the original nine planets in the solar system, Pluto is the only one we've never seen up close. In fact, the best images of that tiny world were shot by the Hubble Space Telescope. It took 20 computers running around the clock over a four-year period to generate just a handful of grainy, featureless pictures. By April, the New Horizons probe will send back pictures of Pluto that are 10 times clearer, and will get even better as the probe closes in on this tiny world.
This promises to be a truly awe-inspiring year. The last time I was this excited from an astronomy perspective was in 1989 when Voyager 2 flew past Neptune, sending back captivating images of a gigantic world composed of water, ammonia and methane. We learned that the winds in its upper atmosphere travel at more than twice the speed of sound.
I can only imagine the new wonders and unexpected discoveries mankind will unlock less than four months from today.
However, none of the wonder I enjoy learning about would've happened if it hadn't been for people like Leonard Nimoy, who helped me ponder many questions regarding the cosmos.
Where does the universe begin? Where does it end? Are we alone, or does the cosmos teem with an abundance of life just waiting to be discovered? And the biggest question of all: Why are we here? Those are questions I hope humanity can answer one day.
"Ad astra per aspera -- a rough road leads to the stars."
-- Brian S. Orban