Astronomers Added Some Serious Value to a Future Pluto Orbiter Mission

Astronomers Added Some Serious Value to a Future Pluto Orbiter Mission

Researchers at the Southwest Research Institute have pointed towards a lot of secrets that the future missions to Pluto would like to unveil.

The first up-close look at Pluto laid the groundwork for plans of future Pluto orbiter mission due to the intriguing and impelling discoveries made from it. The images and data collected from the New Horizons mission flyby of Pluto had revealed a resplendent and enticing world which was referred to as ‘magical’, ‘breathtaking’, and ‘scientific wonderland’ corresponding to the much-awaited close-up view of Pluto. The discoveries made by the New Horizons mission increased the chances of future Pluto orbiter mission. One of the major breakthroughs from this expedition is the fuel-efficient orbital tour and the demonstration of orbiter continuing the space expedition in Kuiper Belt after the Pluto voyage.

It showed Pluto to be an awe-strikingly different world with gigantic plains of nitrogen ice, 2 mile-high mountains of water ice, and wealth of other surface features. Dr. Alan Stern, an Associate Vice President and Planetary Scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, led the research. He was assisted by Dr. Mark Tapley (a Spaceflight Engineer and Mission Designer), Tiffany Finley (the Software Lead), and John Scherrer (the Project Manager of the SwRI mission). Talking about the scope of the mission, Stern said,

“The probe got just a fleeting look at the dwarf planet system while zooming by; an orbiter would linger and lift Pluto’s veil even more. You could map every square inch of the planet and its moons, it would be a scientific spectacular.”

The team first ferreted out the significant objectives that can be achieved from the gravity assists from Pluto’s giant satellite Charon, instead of using the propellant. This will aid in the orbit altering of the orbiter incessantly for further study of Pluto and its environment including its atmosphere, its five moons, and the solar wind interactions. This led to the achievement of the second milestone which proved to be quite fruitful as well. It involved the use of Charon’s gravity to escape the system without the use of any fuel by using the slinging system and propelling it into Kuiper Belt with the help of same electric propulsion system it used to enter the Pluto orbit. This will bring forth the exploration of dwarf planets and smaller Kuiper Belt bodies. Stern referred to that by saying,

“This is groundbreaking. Previously, NASA and the planetary science community thought the next step in Kuiper Belt exploration would be to choose between ‘going deep’ in the study of Pluto and its moons or ‘going broad’ by examining smaller Kuiper Belt objects and another dwarf planet for comparison to Pluto. The planetary science community debated which was the right next step. Our studies show you can do both in a single mission: it’s a game changer. A Pluto orbiter could get off the ground in the late 2020s or so and that the probe would spend seven or eight years journeying to the dwarf planet, then perhaps four or five years studying Pluto and its moons.”

Finley designed the Pluto orbital tour with Charon gravity assist maneuvers. She explained that this tour is far from optimized, yet it is capable of making five or more flybys of each of Pluto’s four small moons while examining Pluto’s polar and equatorial regions using plane changes. Similarly, the plan also allows for an extensive up-close encounter with Charon before dipping into Pluto’s atmosphere for sampling.

Tapley mentioned that his work was inspired by the electric propulsion used by NASA’s Dawn Mission. It allowed the orbiter to fly to other Kuiper Belt objects with the inclusion of one of the dwarf planets. Tapley mentioned that they have taken it a step further as the orbiter can enter the orbit of another dwarf planet. He elaborated that in the following words:

“In fact, we found it is even possible to reach and then enter into orbit around a second dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt after studying Pluto!”

Dr. Amanda Zangari, who is a Planetary Scientist, researched and scrutinized 45 largest Kuiper Belt objects and dwarf planets. Her work outlined a lot of possible missions including a 25-year tour to dwarf planets Eris and Sedna via Jupiter-Neptune swing-by, Makemake, Quaoar, Haumea via Jupiter-Saturn swing-by, and Varuna after a Jupiter-Uranus flyby.

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