NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, currently in the middle of its historic encounter with Pluto and its system of moons, is the culmination of a quarter of a century of effort to send the first mission to study this distant outpost of the solar system. Given the infrequent availability of low-energy launch opportunities and the long flight times to Pluto coupled with the lengthy process of proposing planetary missions, gaining the required support and funding as well as actually building the hardware, now is as good as time as any to start thinking seriously about the next mission to Pluto.

In my latest article published in The Space Review, entitled “What About the Next Pluto Mission?”, I examine the options and rationale for a follow up to the current New Horizons Pluto mission. While an orbiter would be ideal, it would be very expensive and have a travel time on the order of a couple of decades or more. I argue that even another relatively inexpensive “fast flyby” mission like New Horizons arriving at Pluto around 2039 could tell us much more about this dwarf planet and answer the many new questions that will inevitably be raised by the current mission. Further, I propose that this might be made part of a larger series of flyby missions launched in the 2028 to 2034 time frame using a common spacecraft design and Jupiter gravity assists to revisit Uranus and Neptune around 2040 or so – over a half of a century after the initial reconnaissance by Voyager 2 and years or maybe even decades before any currently studied (but yet to be approved) orbiter missions are likely to reach these long overlooked worlds.

This image of Pluto acquired by New Horizons on July 11, 2015 will be the best view we have of its Charon-facing hemisphere until a follow up mission reaches this dwarf planet maybe in a quarter century. (NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI)


“What about the next Pluto mission?”, The Space Review, Article #2787, July 13, 2015 [Article]


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Related Reading

“Voyager 2: The First Uranus Flyby”, Drew Ex Machina, January 24, 2016 [Post]

“Sampling the Surface of Europa”, Drew Ex Machina, May 29, 2015 [Post]

“A Europa-Io Sample Return Mission”, Drew Ex Machina, March 27, 2014 [Post]

“The Grand Tour Finale: Neptune”, The Space Review, Article #2586, August 25, 2014 [Article]