NASA Green Lights Study for Orbital Mission to Pluto

Pluto and its largest moon Charon (upper left), as seen by New Horizons on July 14, 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

When the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto after a decade-long flight in 2015, the data it returned to Earth revealed more questions than answers about the tiny mysterious world and its five moons three billion miles away. The only downside, if there was one, was that it was a flyby mission.

At 32 times further from the sun than we are, so far that round-trip radio communications takes nine hours, a flyby was the only possible way to reach Pluto within a decade, requiring a small lightweight design launched atop a heavyweight rocket. It revealed a world unlike no other in the solar system, geologically active and painted in breathtaking beauty, with landscapes which look both familiar and alien. But one thing however was quickly clear – we have to go back for an extended mission.

Dr. Alan Stern (holding banner at left) and the New Horizons mission team celebrates New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015. Photo Credit: Elliot Severn / AmericaSpace

Now, NASA has given funding to the mission’s team at Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) to start seriously looking into it and study the attributes, feasibility and cost of such a mission, develop the spacecraft and payload design requirements, and “make preliminary cost and risk assessments for new technologies,” according to SWRI.

It’s one of 10 different mission studies that NASA is sponsoring to prepare for the next Planetary Science Decadal Survey, the results of which the agency will hand over to the National Academy Planetary Decadal Study that will begin in 2020.

Technicians working on the New Horizons spacecraft in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, ahead of its January 2006 launch. Photo Credit: NASA/KSC

“We’re excited to have this opportunity to inform the decadal survey deliberations with this study,” said SwRI’s Dr. Carly Howett, who is leading the effort. “Our mission concept is to send a single spacecraft to orbit Pluto for two Earth years before breaking away to visit at least one KBO and one other KBO dwarf planet.”

Following Pluto, New Horizons visited KBO MU69, and is currently cruising ever deeper into the uncharted cold expanse of the dark outer solar system.

The “blue skies of Pluto” as seen by New Horizons after closest approach. Soot-like particles in the atmosphere scatter sunlight in a way that the atmosphere appears blue, similar to what happens on Earth. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

“In an SwRI-funded study that preceded this new NASA-funded study, we developed a Pluto system orbital tour, showing the mission was possible with planned capability launch vehicles and existing electric propulsion systems,” said SwRI’s Dr. Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission as well as the SwRI-funded study.

“We also showed it is possible to use gravity assists from Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, to escape Pluto orbit and to go back into the Kuiper Belt for the exploration of more KBOs like MU69 and at least once more dwarf planet for comparison to Pluto.”

And while the debate rages on about whether or not Pluto is a planet, NASA’s Administrator Jim Bridenstine chimed in on the matter this summer.

Although humanity’s first visit to Pluto was brief, New Horizons revealed 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, possible cryovolcanoes (ice volcanoes) and even a possible subsurface ocean of water.

Those discoveries will drive the design and science objectives of the proposed orbital mission, answering some of the questions New Horizons’ sparked.



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