Dr. Alan Stern Answers Your Questions!

[/caption]Some of you may know, we recently launched a new “Ask” feature here at Universe Today. Our inaugural launch features Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. We collected your questions in our initial post and passed them along to Dr. Stern who graciously took the time to answer them.

Here are the questions picked by you, the readers, and Dr. Stern’s responses. We’d like to thank our readers for making this kick-off a success, as well as Dr. Stern for his participation.


1.) Many sci-fi authors have dreamed of putting some sort of telescope on the surface of Pluto to take advantage of the relative darkness and extreme cold encountered on this distant dwarf planet. How feasible would it be, judging from what we’re learning from the New Horizons expedition, to actually land a spacecraft, or a telescope, on Pluto’s surface? If such a telescope where deployed, how much more effective, if at all, could it be than an instrument like the JWST?

Alan Stern:“Space astronomy has revolutionized the way we look at the universe and is fundamental to modern astrophysics.” There are benefits to getting telescopes out of the atmosphere, and even benefits to getting out of Earth orbit, as in the case of Kepler and someday maybe JWST.

With regard to taking advantage of Pluto’s cold temperature – we’ve gotten really good at cooling down space telescopes. “There would be a benefit to placing a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon, but there’s no real practical reasons to place a telescope on Pluto—particularly given the cost of getting there, other than it being cool.”

2.) Kuiper objects differentiate strongly in color suggesting compositional or perhaps formation differences. Interestingly the color distribution correlates with the two different cold and hot Kuiper populations. Assuming the spectral analysis capability of New Horizon works for identifying the follow up Kuiper objects beyond Pluto-Charon, and given the putative possibility of choosing between several such targets, what type of target would the mission aim for? Would it try to cover as much diversity of objects as possible or is there a certain class of objects that could be important to concentrate on?

A.S: “We have to find Kuiper belt objects within our spacecraft’s fuel supply.” Stern elaborated, stating, “Predictions from our computer models tell us to expect to be able to have perhaps six possible candidates, to choose from, but so far we’ve just begun to search for these and though we’re finding KBOs, none we’ve found are yet are within the fuel supply.”

Stern also added, “Keep in mind our search for candidates isn’t easy – these are 27th magnitude objects which are roughly 50,000 times fainter than Pluto. What we’ll use to select between candidates once we have them are color, orbits, moons, rotational speeds – basically what combination of properties give us the most science for our fuel budget. The longer we wait after the Pluto flyby in July 2015 to make a decision, the more fuel will be consumed, so the “sweet spot” would be to have preliminary candidates in early 2015.”
(UT Note: New Horizons will perform its Pluto flyby in mid-2015 ).

3.) Given the limited funds available, Which do you recommend (Europa or Enceladus) as a suitable target for a mission in the 2025 time-frame in terms of value for money, scientific return, and practicality, and what kind of mission do you propose (lander vs. orbiter) ?

A.S: “Every scientist has their own judgment of what would make a good outer system flagship mission, or the best world to perform a series of missions that would equal a flagship mission.” Dr. Stern’s opinion is to explore Titan first, with Enceladus as a secondary target of that mission and Europa last, stating “Titan is the belle of the ball”, citing Titan’s active liquid cycle and thick atmosphere. Stern also added that he believes a mission to Titan would provide the most science per budget dollar.

4.) Four of the craft escaping the Solar System – Pioneers 10 & 11 and Voyagers 1 & 2 – have on board some sort of “message” to any possible extraterrestrials in the unlikely event they find it. Why was not some sort of message like that included on New Horizons, which may be the last (in our lifetimes) craft to also escape the Solar System?

A.S “There are several mementos onboard New Horizons, but no Voyager-like message.” Dr. Stern discussed a promise he made to his team that New Horizons would not be canceled and that he wanted his team focused on the science of the mission. Stern also pointed out that the process of deciding what to place on the Voyager plaques became mired in political correctness, (should the humans have been clothed? What cultures and races should be represented, etc.)

By separating the “icing from the cake”. Stern and his team have been able to concentrate on their main objective—to execute the New Horizons mission for about twenty cents on the dollar, as compared to the Voyager missions. Stern concluded with, “I’m proud that we got this done and that New Horizons is operating perfectly now way out there between Uranus and Neptune and flying almost a million kilometers per day toward the Pluto system.”

5.) Are any present or foreseeable technologies being considered for exploring the depths of our four “gas giant” planets?

A.S “There are no serious proposals to put a probe into one of the giant planets now, or even any call for such in the recent decadal survey for planetary missions. Keep in mind, though, that the Juno mission (now en route to Jupiter ) will use powerful remote sensing techniques to probe Jupiter from orbit around it to greater depths than the Galileo probe (which actually entered Jupiter’s atmosphere).”

6.) Why was it considered “urgent” to get to Pluto before the atmosphere refroze?

A.S “We have three “Group 1″ objectives for New Horizons. Map the surface, map the composition, and assay the atmosphere.” Stern referred to the objectives as a “three legged stool” in that no one objective could be omitted and still justify the mission, adding “so we need to accomplish that.. we need to get there before the atmosphere collapses”. Stern also referred to Pluto’s atmosphere as “very different from any other planet yet studied”, hence its inclusion as one of the three “Group 1” objectives.

7.) The Dawn mission to Vesta has shown us a body that was much less round than expected. Do you think it is possible that New Horizons will surprise us about Pluto, to the same degree? Please compare the expectations of the New Horizons fly by, to the early images of Vesta from Dawn.

A.S “With New Horizons being the first mission to Pluto, we will be surprised—after all, we’re always surprised on first reconnaissance flybys”. Stern added, “With Mariner 10, we discovered Mercury was all core, with Voyager we discovered volcanos and geysers across the outer solar system, and of course we were surprised when craters and river valleys were discovered by early Mars probes.”

Regarding Pluto, Stern stated “Pluto is the first discovered and soon to be reconnoitered of the most plentiful class of planets, while I’m not big on making predictions, I will say that what we will find will certainly be, well, wonderful.”

9.) Can new horizons now take more detailed photos of Pluto than HST? If not, when does it get close enough?

A.S “Great question! We actually thought about that a lot when designing New Horizons. One of our instruments, LORRI (Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager – http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/spacecraft/sciencePay.html) will provide us with views better than HST around April of 2015, and we expect to have about twenty weeks (10 weeks before, 10 weeks after the Pluto flyby) when we “own” the Pluto system — and I can guarantee the best images we hope to make should be as good as Landsat images of Earth!”

That wraps up our interview with Dr. Alan Stern. Once again, we at Universe Today would like to thank Dr. Stern for his gracious participation. If you’d like to learn more about the New Horizons mission to Pluto and The Kuiper Belt, visit: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/index.php

Next month, we’ll be having an “Ask an Astronaut” feature with Mike Fossum, Commander of Expedition 29 on the International Space Station. Stay tuned!

Alan Stern Resigns From NASA

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Alan Stern has stepped down as NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. No word on Stern’s reasons for leaving, or why such an abrupt departure, but the timing suggests it could be related to the erroneous announcement that funding for the Mars Rovers would be cut. Stern is seemingly highly respected and very popular among mission scientists and designers, and Stern had pledged to toe the line about mission spending and cost overruns. There are conflicting reports whether Stern will continue as Principal Investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto, but it would be very surprising to see him leave the mission to which he has devoted most of his career.

Stern had only been with the Science Mission Directorate for about a year but during that year Time Magazine named Stern as one of the 100 Most Influential People in 2007.

Continue reading “Alan Stern Resigns From NASA”

New Horizons Prepares to Zoom to Pluto

Artist impression of the New Horizons spacecraft sweeping past Pluto. Image credit: JHUAPL/SwRI. Click to enlarge.

If all goes well, the first mission to the farthest known planet in our Solar System will launch in early 2006, and give us our first detailed views of Pluto, its moon Charon, and the Kuiper Belt Region, while completing NASA’s reconnaissance of all the planets in our Solar System.

“We’re going to a planet that we’ve never been to before,” said Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto. “This is like something out of a NASA storybook, like in the 60’s and 70’s with all the new missions that were happening then. But this is exploration for a new century; it’s something bold and different. Being the first mission to the last planet really ‘revs’ me. There’s something special about going to a new frontier, about

Pluto is so far away (5 billion km or 3.1 billion miles when New Horizons reaches it) that no telescope, not even the Hubble Space Telescope, has been able to provide a good image of the planet, and so Pluto is a real mystery world. The existence of Pluto has only been known for 75 years, and the debate continues about its classification as a planet, although most planetary scientists classify it in the new class of planets called Ice Dwarfs. Pluto is a large, ice-rock world, born in the Kuiper Belt area of our solar system. Its moon, Charon, is large enough that some astronomers refer to the two as a binary planet. Pluto undergoes seasonal change and has an elongated and enormous 248-year orbit which causes the planet’s atmosphere to cyclically dissipate and freeze out, but later be replenished when the planet returns closer to the sun.

New Horizons will provide the first close-up look at Pluto and the surrounding region. The grand piano-sized spacecraft will map and analyze the surface of Pluto and Charon, study Pluto’s escaping atmosphere, look for an atmosphere around Charon, and perform similar explorations of one or more Kuiper Belt Objects.

The spacecraft, built at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, is currently being flight tested at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Dr. Stern has been planning a mission to Pluto for quite some time, surviving through the various on-again, off-again potential missions to the outer solar system.

“I’m feeling very good about the mission,” he said in an interview from his office at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “I’ve been working on this project for about 15 years, and the first 10 years we couldn’t even get it out of the starting blocks. Now we’ve not only managed to get it funded, but we have built it and we are really looking forward to flying the mission soon if all continues to go well.”

Of the hurdles remaining to be cleared before launch, one looms rather large. New Horizons’ systems are powered by a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG), where heat released from the decay of radioactive materials is converted into energy. This type of power system is essential for a mission going far from the Sun like New Horizons where solar power is not an option, but it has to be approved by both NASA and the White House. The 45-day public comment period ended in April 2005, so the project now awaits final, official approval. Meanwhile, the New Horizons mission teams prepare for launch.

“We still have a lot of work in front of us,” Stern said. “All this summer we’re testing and checking out the spacecraft and the components, getting all the bugs out, and making sure its launch ready, and flight ready. That will take us through September and in October we hope to bring the spacecraft to the Cape.”

The month-long launch window for New Horizons opens on January 11, 2006.

New Horizons will be the fastest spacecraft ever launched. The launch vehicle combines an Atlas V first stage, a Centaur second stage, and a STAR 48B solid rocket third stage.

“We built the smallest spacecraft we could get away with that has all the things it needs: power, communication, computers, science equipment and redundancy of all systems, and put it on the biggest possible launch vehicle,” said Stern. “That combination is ferocious in terms of the speed we reach in deep space.”

At best speed, the spacecraft will be traveling at 50 km/second (36 miles/second), or the equivalent of Mach 85.

Stern compared the Atlas rocket to other launch vehicles. “The Saturn V took the Apollo astronauts to the moon in 3 days,” he said. “Our rocket will take New Horizons past the moon in 9 hours. It took Cassini 3 years to get to Jupiter, but New Horizons will pass Jupiter in just 13 months.”

Still, it will take 9 years and 5 months to cross our huge Solar System. A gravity assist from Jupiter is essential in maintaining the 2015 arrival date. Not being able to get off the ground early in the launch window would have big consequences later on.

“We launch in January of 2006 and arrive at Pluto in July of 2015, best case scenario,” said Stern. “If we don’t launch early in the launch window, the arrival date slips because Jupiter won’t be in as good a position to give us a good gravity assist.”

New Horizons has 18 days to launch in January 2006 to attain a 2015 arrival. After that, Jupiter’s position moves so that for every 4 or 5 days delay in launch means arriving at Pluto year later. By February 14 the window closes for a 2020 arrival. New Horizons can try to launch again in early 2007, but then the best case arrival year is 2019.

New Horizons will be carrying seven science instruments:

  • Ralph: The main imager with both visible and infrared capabilities that will provide color, composition and thermal maps of Pluto, Charon, and Kuiper Belt Objects.
  • Alice: An ultraviolet spectrometer capable of analyzing Pluto’s atmospheric structure and composition.
  • REX: The Radio Science Experiment that measures atmospheric composition and surface temperature with a passive radiometer. REX also measures the masses of objects New Horizons flies by.
  • LORRI: The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager has a telescopic camera that will map Pluto?s far side and provide geologic data.
  • PEPSSI: The Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation that will measure the composition and density of the ions escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere.
  • SWAP: Solar Wind Around Pluto, which will measure the escape rate of Pluto?s atmosphere and determine how the solar wind affects Pluto.
  • SDC: The Student Dust Counter will measure the amount of space dust the spacecraft encounters on the voyage. This instrument was designed and will be operated by students at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Stern says the first part of the flight will keep the mission teams busy, as they need to check out the entire spacecraft, and execute the Jupiter fly-by at 13 months.

“The middle years will be long and probably — and hopefully — pretty boring,” he said, but will include yearly spacecraft and instrument checkouts, trajectory corrections, instrument calibrations and rehearsals the main mission. During the last three years of the interplanetary cruise mission teams will be writing, testing and uploading the highly detailed command script for the Pluto/Charon encounter, and the mission begins in earnest approximately a year before the spacecraft arrives at Pluto, as it begins to photograph the region.

A mission to Pluto has been a long time coming, and is popular with a wide variety of people. Children seem to have an affinity for the planet with the cartoon character name, while the National Academy of Sciences ranked a mission to Pluto as the highest priority for this decade. In 2002, when it looked as though NASA would have to scrap a mission to Pluto for budgetary reasons, the Planetary Society, among others, lobbied strongly to Congress to keep the mission alive.

Stern said the mission’s website received over a million hits the first month it was active, and the hit rate hasn’t diminished. Stern writes a monthly column on the website, http://pluto.jhuapl.edu , where you can learn more details about the mission and sign-up to have your name sent to Pluto along with the spacecraft.

While Stern is understandably excited about this mission, he says that any chance to explore is a great opportunity.

“Exploration always opens our eyes,” he said. “No one expected to find river valleys on Mars, or a volcano on Io, or rivers on Titan. What do I think we’ll find at Pluto-Charon? I think we’ll find something wonderful, and we expect to be surprised.”