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posted by martyb on Friday October 26 2018, @04:04AM   Printer-friendly
from the far-and-wide dept.

SwRI team makes breakthroughs studying Pluto orbiter mission

A Southwest Research Institute [SwRI] team using internal research funds has made several discoveries that expand the range and value of a future Pluto orbiter mission. The breakthroughs define a fuel-saving orbital tour and demonstrate that an orbiter can continue exploration in the Kuiper Belt after surveying Pluto. These and other results from the study will be reported this week at a workshop on future Pluto and Kuiper Belt exploration at the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Associate Vice President and planetary scientist Dr. Alan Stern leads the SwRI study. The team first discovered how numerous key scientific objectives can be met using gravity assists from Pluto's giant satellite, Charon, rather than propellant, allowing the orbiter to change its orbit repeatedly to investigate various aspects of Pluto, its atmosphere, its five moons, and its solar wind interactions for up to several years. The second achievement demonstrates that, upon completing its science objectives at Pluto, the orbiter can then use Charon's gravity to escape the system without using fuel, slinging the spacecraft into the Kuiper Belt to use the same electric propulsion system it used to enter Pluto orbit to then explore other dwarf planets and smaller Kuiper Belt bodies.

"This is groundbreaking," said Stern. "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."

Previously: Return to Pluto?
A Return to Pluto and Other Solar System Targets

Related: New Horizons Captures the Farthest Image From Earth Ever Made
New Horizons Spacecraft Approaches 2014 MU69; OSIRIS-REx Nears 101955 Bennu

Original Submission

Related Stories

Return to Pluto? 38 comments

Scientists, including New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, met in Houston on April 24th to discuss the possibility of a Pluto orbiter mission. The mission would likely cost $1-2 billion, compared to around $700 million for New Horizons and $467 million for the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres. A launch date in the late 2020s is possible, with a 2030 launch coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Pluto's discovery:

[A] Pluto orbiter mission is a long way from becoming reality, Stern stressed. He said he and his fellow researchers aim to mature the concept in time for it to be considered during the next Planetary Science Decadal Survey, a U.S. National Research Council effort that sets exploration priorities for NASA every 10 years. The next decadal survey will start in 2020, finish in 2022 and be published in 2023, Stern said.

Using the Space Launch System (SLS) could reduce travel time compared to the nine-and-half-year journey of New Horizons, but braking would be required to orbit the Pluto-Charon system, increasing the total travel time back to around seven to nine years. Other missions being considered include flybys of more distant Kuiper Belt dwarf planets (Eris, Sedna, etc.) and exploration of Neptune's moons Triton and Nereid, which are likely captured Kuiper Belt Objects. Triton has about a 14% larger radius and 64% more mass than Pluto. Voyager 2 observed 40% of Triton's surface in 1989.

Original Submission

A Return to Pluto and Other Solar System Targets 10 comments

Astronomers are still hoping for another mission to Pluto, or perhaps another Kuiper belt object:

A grassroots movement seeks to build momentum for a second NASA mission to the outer solar system, a generation after a similar effort helped give rise to the first one. That first mission, of course, was New Horizons, which in July 2015 performed the first-ever flyby of Pluto and is currently cruising toward a January 2019 close encounter with a small object known as 2014 MU69.

[...] Nearly three dozen scientists have drafted letters in support of a potential return mission to Pluto or to another destination in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy bodies beyond Neptune's orbit, Singer told These letters have been sent to NASA planetary science chief Jim Green, as well as to the chairs of several committees that advise the agency, she added. "We need the community to realize that people are interested," Singer said. "We need the community to realize that there are important, unmet goals. And we need the community to realize that this should have a spot somewhere in the Decadal Survey." That would be the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, a report published by the National Academy of Sciences that lays out the nation's top exploration priorities for the coming decade.

New Horizons 2 was already cancelled due to a shortage of plutonium-238, which still reportedly persists. One proposed target was 47171 Lempo, a trinary system. The trans-Neptunian dwarf planets Eris, Haumea, Sedna, Orcus, Salacia, Makemake, and 2007 OR10 (the largest known body in the solar system without a name - with an estimated 1,535 km diameter) have all been discovered since 2002. Several of these TNOs have moons and Haumea was recently found to have a ring system.

Now that Cassini is dead, most new NASA missions are focused on Mars and Jupiter, leaving the solar system's "ice giants" relatively unstudied:

New Horizons Captures the Farthest Image From Earth Ever Made 10 comments

New Horizons has taken images of the "Wishing Well" star cluster and the Kuiper belt objects 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85 using its LORRI instrument. New Horizons was over 6.12 billion kilometers (40.9 AU) away from Earth when it took the images (archive), beating the previous record by Voyager 1:

New Horizons was even farther from home than NASA's Voyager 1 when it captured the famous "Pale Blue Dot" image of Earth. That picture was part of a composite of 60 images looking back at the solar system, on Feb. 14, 1990, when Voyager was 3.75 billion miles (6.06 billion kilometers, or about 40.5 astronomical units [AU]) from Earth. Voyager 1's cameras were turned off shortly after that portrait, leaving its distance record unchallenged for more than 27 years.

[...] During its extended mission in the Kuiper Belt, which began in 2017, New Horizons is aiming to observe at least two-dozen other KBOs, dwarf planets and "Centaurs," former KBOs in unstable orbits that cross the orbits of the giant planets. Mission scientists study the images to determine the objects' shapes and surface properties, and to check for moons and rings. The spacecraft also is making nearly continuous measurements of the plasma, dust and neutral-gas environment along its path.

Previously: New Horizons Measures the Brightness of Galaxies Before Going Into Hibernation
New Horizons Target 2014 MU69 May be a "Contact Binary"
New Horizons Flyby Plan Finalized; Pluto Features Named
Tiny Moon Possibly Orbiting 2014 MU69

Original Submission

New Horizons Spacecraft Approaches 2014 MU69; OSIRIS-REx Nears 101955 Bennu 13 comments

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has imaged 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, from about 172 million kilometers away:

Mission team members were thrilled – if not a little surprised – that New Horizons' telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was able to see the small, dim object while still more than 100 million miles away, and against a dense background of stars. Taken Aug. 16 and transmitted home through NASA's Deep Space Network over the following days, the set of 48 images marked the team's first attempt to find Ultima with the spacecraft's own cameras.

[...] This first detection is important because the observations New Horizons makes of Ultima over the next four months will help the mission team refine the spacecraft's course toward a closest approach to Ultima, at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1, 2019. That Ultima was where mission scientists expected it to be – in precisely the spot they predicted, using data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope – indicates the team already has a good idea of Ultima's orbit.

Meanwhile, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is approaching 101955 Bennu, and has taken a series of images from a distance of about 2.2 million kilometers:

After arrival at Bennu, the spacecraft will spend the first month performing flybys of Bennu's north pole, equator and south pole, at distances ranging between 11.8 and 4.4 miles (19 and 7 km) from the asteroid. These maneuvers will allow for the first direct measurement of Bennu's mass as well as close-up observations of the surface. These trajectories will also provide the mission's navigation team with experience navigating near the asteroid.

"Bennu's low gravity provides a unique challenge for the mission," said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "At roughly 0.3 miles [500 meters] in diameter, Bennu will be the smallest object that any spacecraft has ever orbited."

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  • (Score: 2, Interesting) by c0lo on Friday October 26 2018, @06:27AM (6 children)

    by c0lo (156) on Friday October 26 2018, @06:27AM (#754016) Journal

    the orbiter can then use Charon's gravity to escape the system without using fuel, slinging the spacecraft into the Kuiper Belt to use the same electric propulsion system it used to enter Pluto orbit

    I guess 'using electricity but no fuel' may makes sense... if you are a journalist for which 'electricity' means a power cord plugged into the wall socket and 'fuel' means whatever you fill up your gas-guzzler with.

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by Unixnut on Friday October 26 2018, @08:46AM

      by Unixnut (5779) on Friday October 26 2018, @08:46AM (#754034)

      To be fair, that is probably the average level of understanding for "normal" people. I can't tell you how many times I tried to explain to "eco" people that yes, electric cars do in fact use energy (fuel), the electricity doesn't magically appear out of your power socket. It has to be generated from somewhere, so fuel is being used up, just not locally in the car.

      If you want to be pedantic, the (reversible) chemical reaction in the batteries is being "used up". but I think that would have lost them completely.

      Electricity is an energy transfer mechanism, it isn't a energy source in its own right.

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by hellcat on Friday October 26 2018, @03:14PM (3 children)

      by hellcat (2832) on Friday October 26 2018, @03:14PM (#754113) Homepage

      RTG supplies electricity and you can't turn it off.

      Electric propulsion is not useful for gravity assist maneuvers.

      Hydrazine supplies power to the thrusters. []

      • (Score: 2) by c0lo on Saturday October 27 2018, @12:51AM (2 children)

        by c0lo (156) on Saturday October 27 2018, @12:51AM (#754314) Journal

        Electric propulsion is not useful for gravity assist maneuvers.

        Care to support your assertion?

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 26 2018, @04:35PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 26 2018, @04:35PM (#754139)

      To me, it sounds more like "SwRI Scientist Discovers Kerbal Space Program".