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An analysis by scientists of the orbital mechanics surrounding Pluto and Charon, combined with the use of an ion engine similar to that used by the asteroid probe Dawn, suggests that an orbiter sent to Pluto could also break from from that planet to travel out into the Kuiper Belt and explore additional objects there.
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.”
The key here is a willingness to make increased use of the ion-type engine used by Dawn in its journey from the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. Such a probe could spend decades traveling from one Kuiper Belt object to the next.