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How did our planets form? New Horizons spacecraft could give us the answer, Mason professor says

December 21, 2018

Michael E. Summers

The New Horizons spacecraft’s exploration of the dwarf planet MU69, located 5 billion miles from Earth and a billion miles past Pluto, could reveal how the planets in our solar system formed, a George Mason University professor said.

“This is like going back in history four-and-a-half billion years and examining and seeing what the stuff was that came together to form the planets,” said Michael E. Summers, a professor of planetary science and astronomy and a member of the NASA/New Horizons team.

Summers called the continuation of the New Horizons project, which visited Pluto in 2015 to much fanfare, “pure discovery science.”

“This is exploration,” he said. “It’s not basic research. It’s not applied research. This is just pushing the frontier of what we know.”

New Horizons is scheduled to reach MU69—nicknamed Ultima Thule, a term used in medieval times to signify a place beyond known lands—in the early morning of Jan. 1, 2019. Summers will be at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, monitoring and analyzing the data, which began coming in when the spacecraft was about 30 million miles from its destination.

One surprise: The light shining off MU69 doesn’t vary in intensity, which it would if the planet was rotating, Summers said.

“It could be that MU69 is just uniform in brightness, or perhaps it is a close double planet—two small planets that are just touching each other,” Summers said. “It is certainly a mystery.”

Summers said he doesn’t expect the project to generate the global excitement of New Horizons’ exploration of Pluto. But at a time in the United States when government funding for scientific research is being reduced, and science is being diminished in parts of the public space, New Horizons is a reminder of what science can accomplish, he said.

“I think it helps create excitement and interest in the universe,” Summers said. “And maybe it does help a little bit in the appreciation of science.”

Michael E. 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.

About George Mason 

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 37,000 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.