NASA’s New Horizons probe reached Pluto in 2015, but it zoomed past the dwarf planet in a matter of minutes because of its tremendous velocity. Now, the agency is considering the possibility of sending another mission to Pluto, but this one would stay in orbit to study the surface. A NASA-commissioned study from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) lays out what it would take to establish a long-term presence in the space around Pluto.
New Horizons launched in 2006 when Pluto was still officially considered a planet. It set a record for the fastest spacecraft launch ever because it had a long, long trip ahead of it. After nine years, it flew past Pluto, sending back the first close-up images and data from the former ninth planet. To remain in orbit of Pluto, New Horizons would have needed substantial fuel reserves to bleed off its speed. Instead, NASA redirected New Horizons to study other Kuiper Belt objects. The probe reached an object called Ultima Thule (2014 MU69) earlier this year.
SwRI is the right outfit to come up with a followup to New Horizons — it led the New Horizons mission for NASA. The new NASA funding will allow SwRI to come up with a full mission plan and cost estimate for a future mission. NASA will use the study to inform its next Planetary Science Decadal Survey in 2020. That’s when NASA will decide where it will focus its planetary science efforts in the following 10 years.
We can make some guesses about what sort of mission SwRI will recommend thanks to a previous Pluto orbiter concept it has been developing for the last few years. The orbiter SwRI proposed a few years back would use ion engines like the Dawn spacecraft and a nuclear power source that could keep it operational in the outer solar system. It would rely on Pluto’s moon Charon for gravity assists to alter its orbit, similar to the way Cassini navigated around Saturn and its moons. A past concept called for a lander to set up shop on Charon, which could then observe Pluto from one angle for an extended period of time. It’s unknown if SwRI will recommend any surface instruments in its new study.
The brief New Horizons flyby of Pluto revealed an unexpectedly complex little world with clouds, vast plains of frozen nitrogen, and more. It’s no surprise NASA is thinking about going back.
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