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Flagstaff scientist joins NASA mission to uncover solar system origins

New Horizons co-investigator Will Grundy with Lowell Observatory is seen during a New Horizons media briefing where new images and science findings collected by the spacecraft during the historic flyby of Pluto were discussed Friday, July 17, 2015 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. (Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

PHOENIX — A Flagstaff scientist is working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in an effort to uncover how the solar system was formed.

Astronomer Dr. Will Grundy is a planetary scientist at the Lowell Observatory and is also leading the New Horizons surface composition theme team, which is based out of the Flagstaff observatory.

The New Horizons mission launched back in 2006 and conducted a six month flyby study of Pluto and its moons in 2015, the administration said.

But Grundy said New Horizon’s next mission is to reach MU-69, a collection of millions of pieces left over from the formation of planets. It is in the Kuiper belt in the outermost regions of the solar system.

“MU-69, which we’re going to reach in one more year, is 4 billion miles from Earth,” Grundy said.

This means that New Horizons is traveling about a billion miles in just a few years, zooming along at a speed of more than 36 thousand miles an hour.

“The distance between the Earth and the Sun is 92 million miles and we cover that distance three times in a year,” Grundy said. “So that’s how fast New Horizons is going.”

The images that the New Horizons mission gathers as it passes MU-69 could unlock key questions about the origin of the solar system.

“This is the kind of building blocks that the outer part of the solar system constructed and used to build the giant planets,” he said. “And we’ve never seen one of these up close, so we don’t even have any idea what they’re going to look like.

“I’m very curious how that process worked in the outer solar system,” he said. “Did things sort of suddenly clump together through their own gravity, or did you slowly build up one dust particle sticking to another dust particle?”

Even though New Horizons is expected to reach MU-69 in a year, people will have to wait another year after that before the data can be transmitted back.

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