NIAC Phase I Award: Pluto Hop, Skip & Jump

Pluto Hop, Skip, and Jump mission. (Credit: Benjamin Goldman)

Pluto Hop, Skip, and Jump

Benjamin Goldman
Global Aerospace Corporation
Irwindale, Calif.

Value: Approximately $125,000
Length of Study: 9 months


Imagine a craft that could enter Pluto’s atmosphere at 14 km/s and deliver a 200 kg lander to the surface using aerodynamic drag and just a few kg of propellant.

Pluto’s surface pressure is just 10 millionths of Earth’s, but its atmosphere is about 7 times higher than Earth’s and its volume is about 350 times the volume of Pluto itself. Over a several hundred kilometer entry distance, this ultra-low ballistic coefficient craft can dissipate over 99.999% of its initial kinetic energy, resulting in a terminal velocity comparable to or less than past planetary landers or rovers.

With this architecture, the total propellant requirement for landing on Pluto is less than 3.5 kg! After making science measurements at its initial landing site, the lander switches to “hopper” mode, taking advantage of the low gravitational acceleration (0.063 gee) and a modest propellant store to literally hop, skip, and jump around the surface, sometimes kilometers at a time, investigating features of interest.

The proposed concept would enable in-situ surface science at Pluto with low overall mass, a reasonable cost, and in a timeframe of about 10-15 years.

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  • windbourne

    If red dragon can land on mars and earth, then it is more than capable on nearly all planets of interest. Obviously, not planets with extreme heat (venus or mercury), or crushing gases (jupiter), but for icey locations, seems like red dragon should handle anything from earth on down.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    I say invest in a hybrid solar/radioisotope/sterling-engine powered unmanned spacecraft propelled by a VASIMR propulsion system. It can be launched into LEO by either NASA’s SLS or Musk’s FH. From there it can journey from Mercury to Pluto, visiting all the major and minor planets within a 15 year span, orbiting some, flying by others.

  • Mark Jeffcock

    This is an interesting concept. I would never have considered aerodynamic braking for Pluto. Do the authors of these proposals have to produce even ‘back of envelope’ calculations to suggest this is feasible? Or is this just a way to get some cash. One of the earlier proposals (vacuum balloons) was ably demolished by poster. Anybody with aerodynamics and maths who can demolish or validate this proposal?

  • Paul451

    No. Red Dragon relies on the atmosphere of Mars for nearly all of its braking from interplanetary velocity to barely supersonic. The Superdracos only need to offset the last few hundred m/s.

    That makes RD useless on any significant airless body. (By the time you’ve changed the engines and increased the fuel load, it’s not Dragon any more.)

  • Paul451

    As a Phase-I award, it’s funding to pay someone to do the maths and model the atmosphere in sufficient detail that it serves as a baseline for future proposals.

  • Paul451

    RTG’s produce too little power. You need a proper nuclear reactor. NASA had the Prometheus program before the bulk of the tech-development budget was absorbed by the Constellation program under Mike Griffin.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Proposing a mobile Pluro rover is kind of nuts in terms of cost. Simplier just to send multiple cheaper static landers instead.

    Of course. there have to be a more robust communication link than the pre-Intenet era transmission speed that the New Horizon probe processes.