Pluto’s demotion from planetary status might have made you think NASA would lose interest, but the space agency is now on board with sending a lander to the cosmic object that was long considered our ninth planet.
The lander concept created by Global Aerospace Corporation (GAC), made possible by a grant from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, was recently presented at the 2017 NIAC Symposium. GAC has devised an “entrycraft” that can decelerate from a speed of 30,000 mph and touch down on Pluto fueled only by a minimal amount of propellant and the drag from a tenuous atmosphere.
The Pluto lander will encounter a surface pressure that is just 10 millionths of Earth’s and an atmosphere extends a thousand miles overhead. Because of the unusual way it gets around, the lander can then go into “hopper mode” and take leaps of up to hundreds of miles at once to get up close and personal with Pluto.
"This extended and ultra-low-density atmosphere is ideal for dissipating large amounts of kinetic energy by means of aerodynamic drag,” said principal investigator of the Phase I NIAC effort Dr. Ben Goldman in a press release for Global Aerospace Corporation, “but the key is making the drag area very large while keeping system weight at a minimum."
Meaning, the entrycraft will need to be as vast as a football field to use that atmosphere to its advantage. Now that the GAC design concept has passed preliminary physics tests as part of the Phase I NIAC effort, NASA will see whether or not it can become a reality with a feasibility test. ILC Dover LP, a leading producer of space inflatables which is GAC’s research partner, will support the design and development of the entrycraft’s aerodynamic decelerator.
GLC has its contraption in capable hands. ILC Dover goes way back with NASA, from producing the space suits worn by the crew of Apollo 11 when they first stepped on the moon to the extra-vehicular activity (EVA) suits that have protected astronauts on space shuttle missions and the International Space Station to devising the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) airbag subsystem that landed the craft successfully on Martian soil.
After the lander-hopper is free to explore, its mission will have several facets. It will try to illuminate the origins of Pluto and its relationship to other Kuiper Belt objects and (yes) planets. It will investigate cryovolcanism and other outgassing processes to further understand how the subsurface relates to the atmosphere and vice versa. It will use atmospheric pressure and temperature measurements to validate those taken by New Horizons. It will also probe deeper into Pluto’s surface geomorphology even before it lands, as well as after, and it will use on-site sampling to zero in on its crust and seek out hypothetical liquid water oceans.
While NIAC is not typical in terms of NASA research programs, collaboration with NASA centers such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Langley Research Center (LaRC) as well as other planetary research organizations, this futuristic tech could be taking off in just a little over a decade.
Extra points if the lander finds anything interesting in Pluto’s Cthulhu region.