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New Horizons spacecraft ready for its newest adventure

December 4, 2017

Michael Summers

When the New Horizons spacecraft encounters its next distant world—a small piece of dark rock called MU69—the hope is it will tell us some of what our solar system was like at its inception and how it was formed, a George Mason University professor said.

“We have strong reasons to believe that MU69 is very, very old—just as old as Earth,” said Michael Summers, a planetary scientist and co-investigator in the New Horizons mission to Pluto. “But unlike the Earth, whose surface is continually being modified by water and weather, MU69 has not changed since it was formed 4.56 billion years ago. That makes MU69 a treasure chest in the study of origins.”

Scientists will be looking for clues coming from MU69 to better understand why planets are so diverse, and for insights into where and how the organic material found on Pluto is produced, Summers said.

They also will be interested in more detailed information about MU69 itself. Located 5.64 billion miles from Earth, and 972 million miles from Pluto, MU69 is small, about 50 miles in diameter. It might even be two objects in a tight orbit around each other.

But it is in the study of the origins of the solar system where MU69 might be most intriguing, Summers said.

“The New Horizons spacecraft is helping us see that the universe is an incredibly complex place,” he said. “That’s the way the universe is crafted, to take the rather simple laws of physics and chemistry, and from them produce things beyond what we can imagine.”

Michael Summers can be reached at 703-993-3971 or msummers@gmu.edu.

For more information, contact Damian Cristodero at 703-993-9118 or dcristod@gmu.edu.

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George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 36,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.