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NASA’s New Horizons mission taught us a lot about Pluto, the ice dwarf planet. But the spacecraft sped past Pluto so quickly, we only got high-resolution images of one side of the planet, the so-called “encounter side.” New Horizons gave us a big leap in understanding, but in a way, it asked more questions than it answered.
The next step is clearly an orbiter, and now NASA is starting to seriously consider one.
NASA - Southwest - Research - Institute - SwRI
NASA has given the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) funding to start developing the idea. SwRI is tasked with investigating “the important attributes, feasibility and cost of a possible future Pluto orbiter mission.”
It’s far from a sure thing. This study is one of 10 approved by NASA in advance of the next Planetary Science Decadal Survey. The study will develop design requirements for an orbiter and its payload, make some preliminary cost estimates, and assess risks for new technologies needed for the mission. The results of this study will be delivered to the National Academy Planetary Decadal Study that begins in 2020.
New - Horizons - Pluto - Deeper - Kuiper
New Horizons visited Pluto before heading deeper into the Kuiper Belt and visiting 2014 MU69, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) also known as Ultima Thule. The spacecraft may even visit a third KBO. The proposed Pluto Orbiter would follow a similar path.
“We’re excited to have this opportunity to inform the decadal survey deliberations with this study,” said SwRI’s Dr. Carly Howett, who is leading the effort. “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.”
SwRI - Work - Pluto - Orbiter - Groundwork
The SwRI’s previous work on a Pluto orbiter laid the groundwork for this study. In 2018, SwRI used their own research funds to develop the idea for an orbital tour that can investigate...
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