Pluto orbiter mission could also explore Kuiper belt

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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.



  • wodun

    Awesome, let’s build ten of them.

  • mkent

    Dawn is a great mission, but the real pioneer in planetary ion engines was Deep Space 1. The prime purpose of that mission was to test an ion engine on a planetary science mission. The flybys of Braille and Borrelly were just a bonus.

    Dawn will by followed by the Psyche mission to orbit the asteroid Psyche in 2026. Psyche’s ion engine is about three times as powerful as Dawn’s. The mission described above would obviously take that to a whole new level.

  • Edward

    The current design of ion engines has a limited lifespan, but perhaps new designs can extend this life. My recollection is that Dawn had three ion engines, one of which reached its maximum life.

    With the propellant it carries, Dawn can perform a velocity change of more than 10 km/s over the course of its mission, far more than any previous spacecraft achieved with onboard propellant after separation from its launch rocket.

    The main problem for an ion engine at the orbit of Pluto or beyond is power, but we have solved that problem in the past. Solar power would be too weak to be practical, and nuclear power is still politically incorrect.

    wodun wrote: “Awesome, let’s build ten of them.

    Although we don’t need much more than a couple orbiting Pluto, several could use Pluto or Neptune for gravitational assist to go deep into the Kuiper Belt. Perhaps one or two could be used to chase down more comets.

    As Robert points out, every time we visit a new heavenly body we find a completely different situation (geology, atmosphere, etc.). Clearly, we have not seen enough to start seeing similar objects. What an amazing diversity there is in the universe.

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