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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SwRI Researcher Theorizes Worlds with Underground Oceans May be More Conducive to Life than Worlds with Surface Oceans like Earth

Interior water ocean worlds like Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, are prevalent throughout the universe. New research from Southwest Research Institute suggests that layers of rock and ice may shield life within such oceans, protecting it from impacts, radiation and other hazards and concealing it from detection. Layers of rock and ice may therefore shield and protect life residing in them, and also sequester them from threats and detection. (Credits: Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, March 16, 2021 (Southwest Research Institute PR) — One of the most profound discoveries in planetary science over the past 25 years is that worlds with oceans beneath layers of rock and ice are common in our solar system. Such worlds include the icy satellites of the giant planets, like Europa, Titan and Enceladus, and distant planets like Pluto.

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NASA Funds Research on Nuclear-powered Solar Sails to Quickly Explore Outer Planets

A nominal layout of a solar sail vehicle with a central payload and avionics unit, supported by a distributed APPLE power system with the number and area of units scaled to mission power need (not to scale). (Credits: E. Joseph Nemanick)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase I Award
Funding: up to $125,000
Study Period: 9 months

Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration (APPLE)
E. Joseph Nemanick
The Aerospace Corporation
Santa Monica, Calif.

The Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration (APPLE) is an enabling architecture for deep solar system missions on low mass, fast transit space platforms. We explore an alternative vehicle architecture that integrates a long-lived, peak power capable, rechargeable, and modular power system with solar sail propulsion, and examine the new missions this architecture enables.

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The PI’s Perspective: Probing Farther in the Kuiper Belt with New Horizons

This composite image of the primordial contact binary Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69 (nicknamed Ultima Thule) – featured on the cover of the May 17 issue of the journal Science – was compiled from data obtained by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it flew by the object on Jan. 1, 2019. The image combines enhanced color data (close to what the human eye would see) with detailed high-resolution panchromatic pictures. (Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko)

New Horizons Mission Update
by Alan Stern
Principal Investigator

New Horizons is healthy and performing perfectly as it flies deeper and deeper into the Kuiper Belt! Recently we conducted an engineering review of the spacecraft to “trend” how it was working compared to when it was launched. The result was amazing: Every system and science instrument aboard New Horizons is working as well as it did when we lifted off, more than 14 years and almost 5 billion miles ago. As mission principal investigator I could not be prouder — the men and women who designed, built and tested New Horizons literally created a masterpiece of American workmanship that will likely be able to perform and explore for many more years and many more miles!

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Southwest Research Institute to Study Pluto Orbiter

This high-resolution image captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). The bright expanse is the western lobe of the “heart,” informally called Sputnik Planum, which has been found to be rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ices. (Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (SwRI PR) — NASA has funded Southwest Research Institute to study the important attributes, feasibility and cost of a possible future Pluto orbiter mission. This study will develop the spacecraft and payload design requirements and make preliminary cost and risk assessments for new technologies.

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Hubble Paved the Way for the New Horizons Mission to Pluto and Ultima Thule

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope discovered the next target for the New Horizons spacecraft — 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule — in June 2014. Seen in these five overlaid images, the object resides more than one billion miles beyond Pluto in the frigid outer reaches of the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons will reach Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day 2019. (Credit: NASA/STScI/JHUAPL/SwRI)

LAUREL, Md. (JHUAPL PR) — Years before a team of researchers proposed a mission called New Horizons to explore the dwarf planet Pluto, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope had already made initial observations of the world at the dim outer fringes of our celestial neighborhood. Over many years, Hubble’s pioneering observations repeatedly accomplished what ground-based telescopes could not — imaging features on Pluto’s surface, finding new Plutonian moons, and tracking down a destination to visit after Pluto — an even tinier, icy object in a vast region of small worlds beyond the orbit of Neptune called the Kuiper Belt.

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Send a Message to New Horizons


After a stellar flyby on Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons is set to make the first flyby of Kuiper belt object on New Year’s Eve as it zips past Ultima Thule. Now you can beam a greeting to the plucky probe that’s four billion miles from home at this website. Don’t delay. It’s a limited-time offer.











“Chasing New Horizons” Gets to the Heart of Mysterious Pluto

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Chasing New Horizons: Insider the Epic First Mission to Pluto
by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon
Picador, 2018
hardcover, 320 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-250-09896-2
US$28.00

As America celebrated Independence Day on July 4, 2015, many members of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) team that had guiding NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft toward the first ever exploration of Pluto took a little time off to relax before their lives became very busy.

After a 9.5-year long journey, the spacecraft was only 10 days out from its closest approach to the mysterious dwarf planet. All the secrets Pluto had kept hidden for 85 years since Clyde Tombaugh discovered in 1930 were about to be revealed.

And then the unthinkable happened. Controllers suddenly lost contact with the spacecraft as they were loading the final software needed to guide it through week-long flyby sequence set to begin in only three days. When communications were restored, controllers discovered to its horror that the program and all the supporting files they had spent months uploading had been wiped from the spacecraft’s computer.

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Charon Discovered 40 Years Ago

Forty years after his important discovery, Jim Christy holds two of the telescope images he used to spot Pluto’s large moon Charon in June 1978. A close-up photo of Charon, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft during its July 2015 flyby, is displayed on his computer screen. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Art Howard/GHSPi)

New Horizons Team Celebrates Four Decades of Discovery on Pluto’s Large, Amazing Moon

Laurel, Md. (JHUAPL PR) — The largest of Pluto’s five moons, Charon, was discovered 40 years ago today by James Christy and Robert Harrington at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona – only about six miles from where Pluto itself was discovered at Lowell Observatory. They weren’t even looking for satellites of Pluto – Christy was trying to refine Pluto’s orbit around the Sun.

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Alan Stern to Visit Mojave to Talk About “Chasing New Horizons”

New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern celebrates a Guinness World Record certificate on July 19 at U.S. Postal Service Headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Credit: Dan Afzal, U.S. Postal Service)

MOJAVE, Calif. (MASP PR) — Alan Stern will be at the Stuart O. Witt Event Center at the Mojave Air and Space Port on Tuesday, June 12, 2018 from 4:00 pm – 5:00 p.m. promoting his new book, “Chasing New Horizons”. He will speak for around 30 minutes and then will chat and sign books.

Seating is limited. If you plan to attend, Please RSVP to info@mojaveairport.com no later than Thursday, June 7th.











Missions to Moon, Mars, Mercury & More Set for 2018

This artist’s concept shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft passing by Earth. (Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona)

Updated with SpaceX’s Red Tesla launch.

An international fleet of spacecraft will be launched in 2018 to explore the Moon, Mars, Mercury and the Sun. Two sample-return spacecraft will enter orbit around asteroids while a third spacecraft will be launched to search for asteroids that contain water that can be mined.

NASA will also launch its next exoplanet hunting spacecraft in March. And the space agency will ring in 2019 with the first ever flyby of a Kuiper Belt object.

And, oh yes, Elon Musk is launching his car in the direction of Mars.
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Fly Over Pluto with this Amazing Video

Video Caption: Using actual New Horizons data and digital elevation models of Pluto and its largest moon Charon, mission scientists have created flyover movies that offer spectacular new perspectives of the many unusual features that were discovered and which have reshaped our views of the Pluto system – from a vantage point even closer than the spacecraft itself.

This dramatic Pluto flyover begins over the highlands to the southwest of the great expanse of nitrogen ice plain informally named Sputnik Planitia. The viewer first passes over the western margin of Sputnik, where it borders the dark, cratered terrain of Cthulhu Macula, with the blocky mountain ranges located within the plains seen on the right. The tour moves north past the rugged and fractured highlands of Voyager Terra and then turns southward over Pioneer Terra — which exhibits deep and wide pits — before concluding over the bladed terrain of Tartarus Dorsa in the far east of the encounter hemisphere.

Digital mapping and rendering were performed by Paul Schenk and John Blackwell of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.











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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NIAC Funds Advanced Propulsion Projects

Mach Effects for In Space Propulsion: Interstellar Mission. (Credit: Heidi Fearn)

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program recently funded six proposals focused on futuristic propulsion systems for missions to Pluto, Venus and other solar systems.

There were four Phase I proposals that are worth approximately $125,000 apiece over nine months. NIAC also funded two Phase II proposals that are worth $500,000 each for two-year investigations.

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