The Next Pluto Mission: Part I

On July 14th, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly by Pluto.  It’s among NASA’s most impressive achievements to date.  But what might come next?

New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006, atop an Atlas V 551 rocket with a Centaur upper stage.  That upper stage, and the New Horizons probe inside, had highest launch speed of any man-made object leaving Earth.  New Horizons crossed the Moon’s orbit just 9 hours after launch - the Apollo astronauts took three days - and reached Jupiter in just over a year  (the Voyager spacecraft took nearly three years).  

Launch of New Horizons. The Atlas V rocket on the launchpad (left) and lift off from Cape Canaveral. New Horizons‍ ' launch was the fastest ever to date, at 16.26 km/s.

New Horizons then used Jupiter’s gravity to slingshot itself onto a hyperbolic trajectory that intersects Pluto just over eight years later.

A composite image of Jupiter and Io, taken on on February 28 and March 1, 2007 respectively. Jupiter is shown in infrared, while Io is shown in true-color.

By the time New Horizons reaches Pluto this July, it will be moving at nearly 14 kilometers per second relative to the planet.  That’s 30% faster than the ISS orbits the Earth.  The probe will flash by Pluto in just a few hours.  New Horizons can’t slow down.  It doesn’t carry enough fuel to enter orbit around, or land on, Pluto.  Nor was it designed to.  Instead, New Horizons will keep flying past Pluto, into a vast outer region of our solar system called the Kuiper Belt.  New Horizons may fly by a few Kuiper Belt Objects after its Pluto encounter, a few candidate KBOs are being selected now.

New Horizons flyby of Pluto and Charon on July 14, 2015. Created with Pluto Safari, a free app for iOS and Android.

But what if New Horizons had been intended to stay longer at Pluto?  After a flyby, the next step in planetary exploration is an orbiter to perform extended surface observations, and then a lander.  Are these things even possible, within current technology?  Pluto is forty times farther from the Earth, than Earth is from the Sun.  Transmissions radioed back by New Horizons take four and a half hours to reach us.  Is there any hope of catching anything more than a fleeting glimpse of such a distant place?

Continued in Part II...

If you'd like to follow along with NASA's New Horizons Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, please download our FREE Pluto Safari app.  It is available for iOS and Android mobile devices. Simulate the July 14, 2015 flyby of Pluto, get regular mission news updates, and learn the history of Pluto.

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