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Stephen Hawking Explains the Meaning of New Horizons' Mission to Pluto

British physicist Stephen Hawking passed along his congratulations to the team behind NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto.

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.