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By Alan Boyle

One of the world's best-known scientists, British physicist Stephen Hawking, passed along his congratulations to the team behind NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto — and explained why Tuesday's flyby past the dwarf planet could represent a giant leap in the study of cosmic origins.

"The revelations of New Horizons may help us to understand better how our solar system was formed," Hawking said in a video posted to Facebook. "We explore because we are human, and we want to know. I hope that Pluto will help us on that journey. I will be watching closely, and I hope you will, too."

Planetary scientists say Pluto may preserve chemical fingerprints from the early days of the solar system, more than 4 billion years ago. They also see evidence that Pluto and its moons were formed as the result of a cataclysmic collision between two objects on the solar system's icy edge — much in the same way that Earth and our planet's moon are thought to have taken on their present shape after a cosmic smashup.

New Horizons' team members are just beginning to analyze the data from the piano-sized spacecraft's up-close study of the Plutonian system, 3 billion miles from Earth. Over the next 16 months, gigabits' worth of data will flesh out what was previously only a sketchy picture of Pluto's structure and composition.