NASA Sets Sights On Pluto And Beyond With New Decadal Mission Studies
NASA is considering a return to the farthest reaches of our solar system with new grants for funding a research expedition to Pluto, according to reports by Space.Com. It is one of ten missions that NASA is considering in advance of the National Academy Planetary Decadal Study in 2020.
The lucky recipient of this funding is the Southwest Research Institute, which heads NASA's New Horizons mission that performed a flyby of the dwarf planet in midsummer of 2015 and reached Ultima Thule – the most distant object visited thus far – in January 2019. According to an official statement, the data they uncovered during these flybys "has made a compelling case for a follow-up mission," and imagination runs rampant.
The plan calls for launching an orbiter that will circle the distant planet to gather data over a span of two years. After that, according to Dr. Alan Stern, it will "use gravity assists from Pluto's largest moon, Charon, to escape Pluto orbit and to go back into the Kuiper Belt for the exploration of more KBOs like MU69 and at least once more dwarf planet for comparison to Pluto."
Stern was the principal investigator for New Horizons, which launched in 2006. It was mankind's first mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt – a "thick disk" of planetary wreckage left over from the dawn of our solar system that floats at the border of infinite, uncharted space.
New Horizons spent six months orbiting Pluto, then pressed onward into the Kuiper Belt to fly by Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 2014 MU69, or "Ultima Thule" which aptly translates as "beyond the known world." It is considered a planetary building block and its distance 4 billion miles from the Sun means it is a well-preserved glimpse into the past offering insight into how proto-planets formed in our solar system, and what kind of planet was forming in these distant reaches.
Dr. Carly Howett of SwRI said in a statement, "We're excited to have this opportunity to inform the decadal survey deliberations with this study…Our mission concept is to send a single spacecraft to orbit Pluto for two Earth years before breaking away to visit at least one KBO and one other KBO dwarf planet."
In the meantime, New Horizons continues to send back data. We expect to receive the last of its transmissions to Earth sometime in the late summer of this year. Whatever data it returns – bombshell or not – will inform this mission and, hopefully, be a stepping stone for greater explorations to come.