Global Aerospace Corporation (GAC) is set to reveal its concept to land an unmanned spacecraft on the Pluto. The "Pluto Hop, Skip and Jump" mission concept that will be presented at the 2017 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Symposium in Denver on Monday would not only land on the dwarf planet, but autonomously hop hundreds of kilometers from one spot to another as it explores its frozen surface.

Developed under an NIAC grant, the GAC concept exploits the fact that Pluto has a gravitational pull that's only 0.06 percent that of Earth and a tenuous atmosphere of nitrogen and methane. The idea is that a balloon-like "entrycraft" 260 ft (80 m) in diameter could exploit this low gravity and atmospheric drag to slow down from a relative speed of over 30,000 mph (48,000 km/h) to a safe landing velocity by only relying on drag from the dwarf planet's ultra-thin atmosphere and using a few pounds of propellant. At this point, a lander suspended from the balloon would separate and touch down on the surface.

"Pluto's surface pressure is just 10 millionths of Earth's, but its atmosphere is extremely spread out, extending about 1,000 miles above the surface," says 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."

And once the lander was down, it wouldn't be stuck in one place like the static landers sent to other planets. Instead, the GAC concept could go into "hopper" mode in which it could use small bursts of propellant to jump tens or hundreds of kilometers in a single bound. During its stay on Pluto, the lander-hopper would study the origins of the dwarf planet, its subsurface and outgassing processes, surface geomorphology, and atmosphere and temperature, as well as take samples for study by an onboard laboratory.

GAC says that, if accepted, the concept would be part of NASA's New Frontiers program and that the entrycraft technology could also be used to put an instrument package in orbit around Pluto.

Being developed in partnership with ILC Dover, the concept is still in the preliminary physics tests, but if it passes muster, it could go on to design, fabrication, and testing of a subscale prototype entrycraft launched from a CubeSat in low Earth orbit followed by a full-scale version. According to GAC, a mission using such technology could be launched to Pluto in as few as 12 years.

The NIAC Symposium runs from September 25 to 27.

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