In 2011, Lindy Elkins-Tanton and a couple of colleagues wrote a paper exploring ideas about how tiny would-be planets called planetesimals might have formed billions of years ago, and speculated about whether their remnants might still orbit in the asteroid belt. Afterward, officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, approached her. “Would you like to propose a mission to test your hypothesis?” they asked. “My response was, ‘What?’ because it had never occurred to me to do that,” she says. But 11 years later, her work has led to a new asteroid-bound spacecraft that is headed to the launchpad.
Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University in
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