The Building Blocks of Planets
Thursday, September 12, 2013
News Feature

"We don't send anyone through here without a personal guide," joked Matt Holman as he led a visitor through a maze of corridors and crossways at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge.

But a personal guide of sorts is exactly what a group of astronomers, with help from Holman, a lecturer on astrophysics at Harvard, and his collaborators at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado will be happy to have in two years while piggybacking on a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) spaceship that is racing to the farthest edges of the solar system.

Scientists tend not to joke when it comes to navigating their celestial territory, and that includes Holman and Alex Parker, a former postdoctoral fellow at the CfA's Institute for Theory and Computation, who are part of a mission to find an object in the far-flung Kuiper Belt. They’ll work on that with the help of SwRI's Marc Buie and a number of massive telescopes, including two large Magellan telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

"The Kuiper Belt objects are the building blocks of planets," explained Holman, senior astrophysicist with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and associate director of the CfA's Theoretical Astrophysics Division, who specializes in the study of extrasolar planetary systems. "They are relatively primordial, and this may be our only opportunity for us to see one of these objects up close."

To do that, Holman’s team is hitching a ride on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which will blaze past Pluto on its exploratory mission of the dwarf planet sometime in 2015 at more than 30,000 miles per hour. After completion of the Pluto mission, Holman's SwRI partners, including New Horizon’s principal investigator, Alan Stern, will give NASA the green light to fire the ship's rockets. They will redirect the craft by roughly one degree, and blast into unexplored territory past an object in the distant Kuiper Belt, a vast region composed of icy fragments, leftovers from the solar system's creation 4.5 billion years ago.