The question of how our solar system formed is one step closer to being answered thanks to the work of UCF physics professor Joshua Colwell.

Colwell devised an experiment known as NanoRocks, one of seven scientific endeavors that earned a place on the International Space Station this year. The experiment tests how a number of different mineral particles combine in low-gravity environments, according to a release from UCF News and Information. Results of the experiment have provided valuable data on how planets grew from small bodies of matter into the massive celestial objects that currently orbit our sun.

The experiment separates particles of glass, acrylic, copper and rock into eight different sample trays. The particles are shaken and collide; eventually, the external force dissipates into thermal energy and the particles slow to speeds as low as "a fraction of a centimeter per second," according to the release. Experimenters measure the difference between velocities both before and after their collisions, and the velocities of collisions that cause the particles to stick together.

"We're pleased with the early data," Colwell said. "This is exactly why scientific research in space is critical. There's no way we could get the kind of data we are seeing from our NanoRocks experiment by doing it here on Earth. We need to study collisions at low speeds and without interference from Earth's gravity, and that means space."

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