‘Hopping Around’ on Pluto? Exciting Lander Mission Concept Presented at NASA Symposium

Illustration depicting how the Pluto lander would land on the surface and then “hop” to different locations. Image Credit: L. Calçada of European Southern Observatory (ESO)

In 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft provided our first up-close look at Pluto and its moons, helping to transform our knowledge about these small, cold worlds in the outer fringes of the Solar System. The only downside, if there were one even, was that it was a flyby mission, meaning New Horizons would zip past Pluto and then continue on deeper into the Kuiper Belt. Since then, there has been growing advocacy for a return mission such as an orbiter, or perhaps even a lander.

This week, a concept mission for a Pluto lander was presented by Global Aerospace Corporation (GAC) at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Symposium in Denver, CO. As currently envisioned, the probe would land on Pluto using drag from the super-thin atmosphere and a few pounds of propellant. Then, it could explore the surface further by “hopping” from one location to another, using Pluto’s low gravity. The probe would be capable of traveling tens or even hundreds of kilometers at a time and features of interest could be studied up close at many different locations. The “entrycraft” as it is called would need to be almost the size of a football field in order to bring the lander to the surface. According to GAC, the mission could be launched as soon as 12 years from now.

High-resolution view of Pluto from New Horizons. The large smoother area of ice in Sputnik Planum is the western lobe of the “heart” feature. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The “blue skies of Pluto” as seen by New Horizons after closest approach, with Pluto backlit by the Sun. It is one of the most iconic images of the mission. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
A lone “iceberg” of water ice floats in the nitrogen ice sea of Sputnik Planum. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
A possible cryovolcano (ice volcano) on Pluto, called Wright Mons. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Pluto and its largest moon Charon. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

“Pluto’s surface pressure is just 10 millionths of Earth’s, but its atmosphere is extremely spread out, extending about 1000 miles above the surface, said Dr. Benjamin Goldman, principal investigator of the Phase I NIAC effort. “This extended and ultra-low-density atmosphere is ideal for dissipating large amounts of kinetic energy by means of aerodynamic drag, but the key is making the drag area very large while keeping system weight at a minimum.”

Some goals of the mission would be to:

  • Shed new light on its origins and relationship to other Kuiper Belt objects and other planets.
  • Characterize the dynamics between the subsurface and the atmosphere by investigating outgassing processes such as cryovolcanism.
  • Expand the understanding of surface geomorphology from multiple locations (on approach, during descent, and at the surface).
  • Use in-situ sampling to study the nature of the its crust and search for hypothesized liquid water oceans.
  • Validate New Horizons measurements including atmospheric pressure and temperature profiles.
An early artist’s conception of what the surface of Pluto might look like. With a Pluto lander, we could see it for real. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calcada

New Horizons was an exciting mission, even if it only offered a brief look at the Pluto system. But that brief glimpse showed that Pluto is an active world, with nitrogen ice seas and glaciers, water ice mountains with methane snow, tall spikes of ice, ancient rivers and lakes of liquid nitrogen, a hazy atmosphere and possible cryovolcanoes (ice volcanoes). There may even be a subsurface ocean of water. Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, also appears to have had a subsurface ocean, but it is completely frozen now. It is a bizarre and intriguing place, begging for a return mission to explore its mysteries further. An orbiter would be a phenomenal follow-up to New Horizons, and a lander even more so. Pluto was once just a tiny point of light only visible to the largest telescopes, but now it is an incredible world just waiting to be explored in-depth.

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  1. Pluto, Titan, Europa, et.al. are “begging” for a return mission. It is satisfying to know that the “begging” is being met with serious consideration and planning. Onward!

  2. Pluto should have always had a lander/rover mission of some type….Such a disappointment that some much was so close and NOT “investigated”

  3. The Moon, asteroids, Mars, Pluto, the moons of Pluto, and a lot more is what we want and need. Send robots and then send people. And some of those folks might just decide to stay on or near Pluto.

    Rich deposits of Lunar thorium that can be mined and refined and made into U-233 on the Moon can be used in nuclear reactors that can make massive amounts of electricity and needed heat on and near Pluto.

    U-233 made on the Moon could also power various types of super efficient, robust, powerful, and ultra high Isp nuclear pulse propulsion systems for human and robot Orion spaceships that start their fast voyages across our Solar System in Lunar orbit far away from the Earth’s geomagnetic field and thus carefully avoid any risk of radiation contaminating the Earth and the many negative political and social ramifications such contamination would entail.

    Everything involved in the production and use of Lunar U-233 could be done on the Moon, in Lunar orbit, and beyond the Moon’s orbit of the Earth.

    “It is one thing to hear Freeman Dyson, the eminent physicist and Project Orion veteran, say that the ‘end result [of Project Orion] was a rather firm technical basis for believing that vehicles of this type could be developed, tested, and flown. The technical findings of the project have not been seriously challenged by anybody. Its major troubles have been, from the beginning, political.’2 It is another to have that confirmed by Air Force internal memoranda.”

    And, “We have traded the grand visions of 1962 for a much more tawdry reality, one where instead of going to space in ships with large crews that could roam the inner solar system in voyages measured in months, and would have laid the foundation for humans to reach other stars, our species has accepted small tin cans that may just be able to send a handful of specialists to Mars before the Apollo lunar landing centennial.”

    From: ‘Starfleet was closer than you think’
    By Major Brent Ziarnick and Lt. Col. Peter Garretson 3/16/2015
    At: http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2714/1

    “Since about 2008, nuclear energy experts have become more interested in thorium to supply nuclear fuel in place of uranium to generate nuclear power. This renewed interest has been highlighted in a number of scientific conferences, the latest of which, ThEC13[1] was held at CERN by iThEC and attracted over 200 scientists from 32 countries.”

    And, “Some believe thorium is key to developing a new generation of cleaner, safer nuclear power.[2] According to an opinion piece by a group of scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology, considering its overall potential, thorium-based power ‘can mean a 1000+ year solution or a quality low-carbon bridge to truly sustainable energy sources solving a huge portion of mankind’s negative environmental impact.'[3]”

    From: ‘Thorium-based nuclear power’ Wikipedia
    At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium-based_nuclear_power

    We can go where our robots can go, or we can stay on the Home Planet and make flimsy excuses about why we don’t want humans visiting or living on Pluto and 99% of the rest of our Solar System.

    • “Russia and the United States will lead an international coalition to build a space station to orbit the moon sometime in the 2020s, according to multiple media reports today. A joint statement on the plan was signed this week at the 68th International Astronautical Conference in Adelaide, Australia.”

      From: ‘Reports: U.S. and Russia agree to build space station to orbit the moon’
      By Lee Roop September 27, 2017
      At: http://www.al.com/news/huntsville/index.ssf/2017/09/us_and_russia_agree_to_build_s.html

      “India has one of the largest supplies of thorium in the world, with comparatively poor quantities of uranium. India has projected meeting as much as 30% of its electrical demands through thorium by 2050.[44]”

      From:‘Thorium-based nuclear power’ Wikipedia
      At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium-based_nuclear_power

      If the “international coalition to build a space station to orbit the moon” includes India, then India and Russia could eventually be in a good position to provide the leadership needed for an international coalition to tap rich Lunar thorium deposits, make U-233, and use and sell that U-233 to power spaceships, O’Neill cylinders, and colonies across our Solar System, including those on Pluto and the hundreds or thousands of dwarf planets beyond Pluto.

      To efficiently deflect or destroy incoming NEOs and mine asteroids, Mars, Pluto, and the many dwarf planets beyond Pluto means we need Lunar made U-233 enabled nuclear power.

    • “China last week announced it was going to speed up its research and development of ‘fourth generation’ so-called molten salt reactors that can run on thorium. It aims to have one operational in 10 years instead of 25 years – what those in the industry call the nuclear-power equivalent of a moonshot. If it succeeds, nuclear power would become more efficient, cheaper, and safer than today’s uranium-based reactors.”

      And,“Uranium supplies can feed the current reactor fleet, says David Martin, deputy director of research for the Weinberg Foundation in London, in an e-mail. But if nuclear energy should undergo a renaissance and the need for that fuel stock would increase as a result, it would only underscore the need for fourth generation molten salt nuclear reactors that use thorium.
      ‘China’s ambition is far-sighted,’ he says. ‘This announcement should cause Western governments to end their de facto shutdown of nuclear R&D and massively increase investments in advanced reactors.’”

      From: ‘Thorium: a safer nuclear power’
      By Ken Silverstein March 28, 2014
      At: https://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/Energy-Voices/2014/0328/Thorium-a-safer-nuclear-power

      India, Russia, and China could provide the far-sighted and needed international leadership for Lunar U-233 powered and efficient human crewed spaceships capable of ‘hopping around’ on Pluto and many other useful places in our Solar System.

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