NASA Funds Research into Landing Spacecraft on Pluto

Credit: Kerry Nock

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Phase II Award
Amount: $500,000

Kerry Nock
Global Aerospace Corporation
Irwindale, Calif.

If low approach velocities are desired for orbiters or landers, ballistic flight times to Pluto and other similar distant Kuiper Belt Object-like targets like Triton can be very long – a generation. Even so, the New Horizons (NH) flyby took nearly 10 years to reach Pluto with the help of a Jupiter gravity assist and still the approach velocity was about 14 km/s.

How can one land on or orbit Pluto in a reasonable mission time without many hundreds of millions of dollars in nuclear power sources for low-thrust propulsion, or an exotic propulsion system that could take decades and many millions of dollars to develop, or a next generation launch vehicle and a massive chemical propulsion system? Also, can a Pluto mission be accomplished under the aegis of a NASA New Frontiers Program?

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NASA Selects Innovative, Early-Stage Tech Concepts for Continued Study

Notional view of LCRT on the far-side of the Moon. (Credits: Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA encourages researchers to develop and study unexpected approaches for traveling through, understanding, and exploring space. To further these goals, the agency has selected seven studies for additional funding – totaling $5 million – from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The researchers previously received at least one NIAC award related to their proposals.

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NIAC Projects Target Mars, Venus & Pluto

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

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

An airship for Mars, two spacecraft capable of exploring the hellish environment of Venus, and a fusion-powered orbiter and lander for Pluto are three of the planetary-related research projects recently funded by theNASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

In all, NIAC funded eight advanced projects focused on Mars, Venus and Pluto in its latest annual funding round. The space agency also funded two proposals aimed at identifying and extracting resources on planets, moons and asteroids.
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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

Description

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.

Full List of 2017 NIAC Awards

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