A group of scientists hoping to return to Pluto have proposed an interesting way a future orbiter could make the most of its time in the outer Solar System.
The team from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) say their orbiter could use Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, to slingshot away from the dwarf planet and explore the Kuiper Belt.
"This is groundbreaking," Dr Alan Stern, who led the SwRI study, said in a statement. "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."
Pluto of course has only had one human-made visitor before – NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in July 2015. But this spacecraft revealed the dwarf planet to be a rich and fascinating world, with many hoping to return in the future.
The orbiter envisioned by the team would study Pluto and its five moons for several years, including investigating the atmosphere of Pluto. It could make more than five flybys of each of Pluto’s small moons, and also study the poles and equator.
According to Tiffany Finley, software lead on the mission, the spacecraft could even dip into the atmosphere of Pluto’s atmosphere “for sampling”, and have an extensive “up-close encounter with Charon".
After this, it would “use Charon one last time to escape into the Kuiper belt for new assignments,” said Finley. This could include studying asteroids in the Kuiper Belt, or even reaching and orbiting another dwarf planet.
The team will present their idea at a workshop at the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee this week.
This isn’t the first time a Pluto orbiter has been proposed. Scientists put forward such a mission last year, while there have also been concepts of grander designs using fusion drives and involving a lander.
Any such mission to Pluto will be rather lengthy – consider it took New Horizons almost a decade to get there. But there could be a decent scientific payoff from a world we know little about, but which seems to hold some intriguing mysteries.