Hopkins Applied Physics Lab designs satellite to study Pluto

By David Merrick | October 4, 2001

The New Horizons research team, made up of scientists and engineers from the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory along with members of the Southwest Research Institute, has proposed a research design for a satellite that would fulfill NASA's mission to study Pluto. The satellite could be ready to launch as soon as Dec 2004, and would reach Pluto around 2014 - 2018.

NASA will review the proposal of the New Horizon team, along with another proposal from the University of Colorado and decide which plan to put into operation, if any.

"I'm very happy with the results," says Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, the principal investigator of the New Horizons study and proposal. "We have a very solid concept that's now been proven in a great degree of engineering detail."

The original Pluto-Kuiper Express mission planned by NASA was canceled last Dec due to rising costs. NASA than opened the project to competition to find a lower cost way to get to Pluto, as the first part of its Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission.

Both the New Horizons team and the University of Colorado team, who called their project the Pluto and Outer Solar System Explorer, or POSSE, each received $450,000 in June to conduct a three-month concept study of the mission.

The plans, due on Sept. 25, were used by NASA to determine if the project could conform to the $500 million budget cap the agency placed. Funding for the Pluto mission has yet to be approved by congress.

The New Horizon team plans to use Jupiter?s gravity to help slingshot the satellite towards Pluto. This would reduce operational costs by allowing NASA to launch the spacecraft from a smaller rocket. The team's proposal also utilizes components designed for previous planetary missions, to reduce cost and speed up the design and development time for the project.

"This reduces the necessary flight time and saves money," notes Stern. "The savings come from the fact that by using Jupiter's powerful gravity as a slingshot, NASA can afford to launch the mission on a smaller launch vehicle. Our plan also saves money by using many subsystems already designed for other recent JHU APL planetary explorations. Beyond saving dollars, this re-use of existing subsystem designs also reduces risk and speeds the project development schedule."

The main goals of the NASA mission are: to describe the global geology and composition of Pluto and its companion, Charon, map their surface compositions, and depict Pluto's atmosphere and determine its atmospheric escape rate.

"NASA asked us to perform a detailed feasibility study for flying a mission to explore Pluto and its giant satellite Charon, and to then go on to the Kuiper Belt," said Dr. Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute and the principal investigator of the New Horizons, "We found the mission to be feasible with technologies that are essentially off the shelf for deep space exploration. We also found that a launch as soon as December 2004 can be accomplished."

To accomplish this the spacecraft will carry miniaturized cameras, a radio science instrument, ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers and space plasma experiments. The New Horizon Team determined that this manifest should be adequate to accomplish NASA's mission goals.

"These are the very objectives NASA set forth as goals for the Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission," says New Horizons payload manager William Gibson. "We also found that all of this can be accomplished with a significantly smaller, lighter and far less power-hungry spacecraft than the famous Voyager outer planet reconnaissance missions. It's a real step forward for outer planet exploration."

Pluto is the distant known planet of our solar system and the largest constituent of the Kuiper Belt. The Kuiper Belt is made up of masses left over from planet formation that have never been close enough to the sun to be exposed to the higher temperatures of the inner solar system.

Pluto is covered in ice that is largely made up of nitrogen and simple molecules containing combinations of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.

These elements are the essential building blocks of life and would have been lost into the atmosphere, and eventually into space due to Pluto's low gravity, had the planet come closer to the sun. However, because Pluto is so distant from the sun, these elements have remained in the ice. The composition of Pluto's ice, therefore, is a good example of the primordial material present at the birth of our solar system and the birth of life.

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