GENERALLY WE have tried to stick to our knitting (though not with complete success), paying little attention to interstellar space and leaving encounters with extraterrestrials to the movies. We just plod along, one foot ahead of the other, keeping nose to the grindstone and a mind on the day to day--the same old so-so, as an acquaintance puts it. But recent events have conspired to put a skip in our step and to send our gaze heavenward, as we used to say before the constitutionality of the locution was called into question.
Take the most recent example, the discovery announced this week of the possibility of another planetary system circling another star, the majestic Vega, twice the size of the sun, 60 times as luminous, and only a quarter the age. The mind boggles, as it so frequently does, but the spirit takes flight. Directly overhead at this time of year in this piece of Planet Earth, south of Polaris and southwest of the Big Dipper, shines a star that may--just may-- be harboring our backup system, a safe shelter in the storm, if worse comes to worst as in our darkest moments we fear it may. Just crane your neck and there it shines, in all its comforting splendor.
Nothing has given us such a thrill since Pioneer 10, the silver and gold spacecraft that left this Earth's fragile crust 11 years ago on what was expected to be a 21-month journey, soared out of our solar system last June and glided toward infinity, beeping happily away in the vast and airless silence where space and time have lost their meaning and the only beacon is the light of stars. In about 800,000 years, Pioneer 10 will pass the star Altair, one of the points in the summer triangle formed by Vega and Deneb. We don't know when it will come within shouting distanc of Vega's planets, but we do hope it flashes a smiling beep. We may need its planetary system some day, and we'd like to get relations off on a good footing. After all, Vega is only 26 light years away (if you start now).