NASA commissions plan for Pluto orbital mission
NASA has commissioned Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to study the feasibility of sending an orbital mission to Pluto. One of 10 mission studies funded by NASA for the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, its goal is to send an unmanned spacecraft to make a two-year study to the dwarf planet as well as two other Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).
When NASA's New Horizons deep-space probe flew by Pluto on July 14, 2015, it revolutionized our knowledge of the dwarf planet and its five moons before going on to encounter Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 2014 MU69. Unfortunately, since it was traveling at a velocity of 14 km/sec (31,000 mph), it was only in the vicinity of Pluto for a few hours, so there are still major gaps in our knowledge – not the least of which is that New Horizons wasn't able to map the planet's entire surface.
Now, NASA is considering a longer-term visit with a single, nuclear-powered probe going into orbit around Pluto for two years before heading on to study two other KBOs. Though the details of the new craft are sketchy, it would have a larger payload than New Horizons and more advanced instruments more suitable for an orbital mission. In addition, the goal of visiting other KBOs suggests that it will include some sort of ion drive.
Southwest Research Institute, which led the New Horizons mission, has been funded by NASA to look into the design and physical requirements of the spacecraft and its payload and preliminary costs, and run a risk assessment. The results of the study are expected to be delivered at the National Academy Planetary Decadal Study in 2020.
“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 and 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.”