Published: October 2008

Space Special

amateur astronomer

Search for Origins

The farthest horizons

By Robert Irion
Photograph by Joe McNally

Has astronomy lost its romance? When I visit professional astronomers at work, it often seems that way. Instead of peering through telescopes, they sit in cozy control rooms—sometimes miles away from the mountaintop observatories—and stare at digital re-creations of stars and galaxies on computer screens. Some graduate students now earn Ph.D.s in astronomy just by analyzing reams of data. It's a far cry from the astronomer's life I imagined growing up in Vermont, where the crisp night skies were rich with constellations, the northern lights, the clouds of our Milky Way galaxy, and dreams.

But if part of romance is the thrill of not knowing what comes next, then astronomy has rarely held more allure. The questions we now face lie at the heart of understanding our place in the cosmos. We soon will know whether planets like Earth are rare or common in the Milky Way. Not long thereafter, we will plumb the atmospheres of some of those new worlds to search for faint signals of life. We're already exploring the birth pangs of stars hidden within warm knots of dust, like the nursery that sheltered our sun nearly five billion years ago, to learn how our family of planets arose.

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