Today, we mark the 520th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus in the New World.
It is a day that commemorates a high point in an Age of Exploration that produced Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Central and South America then English, French and Spanish colonies in North America. It led, ultimately, to the United States of America.
It is also the first big holiday weekend of the fall, the season in which New England is at its finest.
The beauty of New England in the fall is unsurpassed as green leaves flame into vivid red, orange and gold. Few scenes are more beautiful than the contrast created by white buildings with their black shutters clustered around an old New England town common bursting with color.
As this was written, today was forecast to be a beautiful fall day with cool temperatures and bright sunshine. It’s a great time for apple picking or foliage hikes; a time to visit familiar places or, like Columbus, to set out to find something new.
That urge to explore is a universal human trait — the desire to see what is just around the corner or beyond the horizon. That curiosity drove the people of Columbus’ time; it drives us still today.
As you read this commentary, two machines made here in the United States are extending human knowledge of the universe we inhabit.
One of them, on an interplanetary scale, is right around the corner. The rover Curiosity is exploring the surface of Mars, the next planet out from the Sun after Earth. After a months-long journey following its launch from Florida, Curiosity survived a harrowingly complex landing on Mars and has just begun its exploration. Already, it has found strong evidence that a shallow river of water once flowed across its landing site. That means life could have evolved on Mars as well as on Earth. Perhaps Curiosity will find evidence of that later in its mission.
The other machine of note is Voyager 1. The probe, launched in September, 1977, on a mission to fly by and photograph Jupiter and Saturn, is about to become the first manmade object to leave our solar system and enter interstellar space. Voyager is now more than 11 billion miles from Earth.
This is all uncharted territory for scientists and it is hard to say exactly where the Sun’s influence ends and interstellar space begins. The best evidence: Voyager’s instruments are now detecting more charged particles coming from the interstellar void than from the direction of the Sun.
Voyager 1 has enough fuel to power its instruments for another decade. Then the probe will fall silent but continue drifting through space, eventually reaching another star system in about 40,000 years. Its twin, Voyager 2, is about 9 billion miles from home and heading in a different direction.
It is somewhat reassuring that, whatever fate befalls humans here on Earth, there is a record of our existence floating out there among the stars.