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UPDATED 01/30/1995 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/30/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

>Carl Sagan

CELESTIAL REASONINGS

"MY GUESS IS THAT THE UNIVERSE IS overflowing with life," says Carl Sagan, the Cornell University astronomer who became a supernova of sorts in 1980 with the spectacular success of his PBS series Cosmos and a glossy companion book that graced the New York Times best-seller list for 70 weeks. "I'm not convinced that it's out there, but it's such an important question, and we have the tools for finding out."

At 60, Sagan, who continues to conduct his own scientific research, lecture and teach at Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., is still awed by the mysteries of the universe and committed to unraveling them. And he's not talking about NASA's little jaunts. "We send people 200 miles up in a tin can, report that the newts are reproducing nicely, thank you, and then we're told that this is NASA at the forefront of exploration," he declares. "It's more than 200 miles between New York and Boston. I mean, let's explore."

Mars (34,600,000 miles away) would be one of the first stops on Sagan's itinerary. "Four billion years ago Mars was warm, wet and earthlike," he says. "What happened? We don't know, but maybe there are fossils waiting for us that would cast light on the origins of life." Another destination? The big near-Earth asteroids. "It wasn't until July, when the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit Jupiter, that we realized we live in a bad neighborhood," says Sagan. "Next time it could be the Earth that gets clobbered. Don't we want to know if there is one with our name on it?"

In fact there is one with Carl's name on it. And for his birthday, friends arranged for another asteroid to be christened after Ann Druyan, his third wife, mother of Alexandra, 12, and Sam, 4, and frequent collaborator. "The asteroid has an orbit almost identical to mine," says Sagan, "so the two of them will go together around the sun forever. I'm so touched by that."

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