On the horizon: Putting Pluto back in the spotlight

New Horizons recently gave us our first close encounter with the dwarf planet Pluto. Assoc Prof Anne Verbiscer tells the inside story on how the project got off the ground.

Illustration by Carson Tully

Illustration by Carson Tully

The New Horizons mission has a lot to celebrate. Launched in 2006, it is NASA’s first of three missions in the New Frontiers program. It is the first mission to the Pluto system and Kuiper Belt to be successfully funded and launched, and it will be the first time scientists can study how these systems have evolved.

But that’s not all. Already, it has been the first probe to successfully image Jupiter’s “Little Red Spot” from up close, and even witnessed eruptions from three of Io’s volcanoes for the first time. On the launch front, it is the first mission to use five solid rocket boosters and was the first spacecraft launched directly into a solar escape trajectory. New Horizons is the missing piece in NASA’s Solar System puzzle. And with the recent flyby on 14 July this year, we are starting to see a whole new side to Pluto.

We were fortunate enough to discuss the mission with Associate Professor Anne Verbiscer from the University of Virginia. Assoc Prof Verbiscer was always fascinated with astronomy and even wanted to be an astronaut. After switching from a philosophy degree to physics during her undergraduate studies, she discovered her true calling in planetary sciences and became an expert in icy bodies. Initially, Assoc Prof Verbiscer was on the KBO (Kuiper Belt Object) team for New Horizons, searching for potential candidates to explore. But after the discovery of two new moons around Pluto, she was switched to the hazards team to help keep the trajectory of the spacecraft free of debris. Here is what she had to say about the mission.



Lateral: What would you say is the significance of this mission?

Assoc Prof Verbiscer: For this particular mission, one of the things that gets brought up is that it is the last-first look at a major body in our Solar System. I don’t like that description because there are plenty of places we haven’t explored in the Solar System. I think the significance of the New Horizons mission exploring Pluto is that it is this whole different region of the Solar System. We have never explored anything this far out from the Sun, and there is this whole reservoir of objects out there and we have no idea what they are like.

The egocentric answer is that I am not going to see anything like this again. There is nothing in the books for additional missions to this region of the Solar System and it takes so long to get out there. 

New Horizons was the fastest launch in history, strapped to the back of the powerful Atlas V rocket.   NASA/Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

New Horizons was the fastest launch in history, strapped to the back of the powerful Atlas V rocket. NASA/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)


What are the logistics behind planning a mission like New Horizons?

I’ve heard anecdotally that there is a restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland where New Horizons originated over a dinner at an Italian restaurant with about 6 or 8 people. They said: “this is what we want to do, this is what a mission should be like,” and that is really where New Horizons got its origin. And this was in 1989!

So there are many different iterations of the mission to Pluto, including Pluto Fast Flyby and Pluto Express. I did read recently in [principal director] Alan Stern’s write-ups in the history of the mission that there was another Pluto mission proposed at the same time but New Horizons was the one that got selected in 2001.

Has the fact that Pluto is no longer a planet affected the mission in any way?          

Yeah, it makes you sort of wonder whether it would have not been selected if that redesignation to dwarf planet happened prior to selection. I don’t know if that factored into it or not. It shouldn’t have affected the mission. But semantics have varying degrees of importance to different people and the people that make these decisions at NASA aren’t always scientists.        

Does it matter who is proposing the mission, in terms of success in the field?

It is a hard question to answer because it depends on how you define success in the field and is that success really relevant to getting a mission off the ground. It takes tenacity and perseverance, and Alan Stern definitely has it. He has the drive, and that has absolutely been key to the success of the mission. You have to fight, I think, every step of the way because you may be cancelled before launch. You really are in a perilous position until that spacecraft takes off on the launch pad. Anything can happen.

Alan Stern, principal director of the New Horizons mission, with members of his team.   NASA/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Alan Stern, principal director of the New Horizons mission, with members of his team. NASA/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)


Would there still be this level of scrutiny at each tiny step if there was more funding?

Hmm, I don’t know. I think demands on research funding and exploration funding are so high that you always have to be on your toes and looking out for your mission. When you encounter something that is an obstacle you just deal with it, you get rid of it. Alan Stern is really good at doing that.    

Has any new technology come from this mission that can be applied readily to the field?

Interesting question. Usually it is the other way around with spacecrafts. You are launching with stuff that by the time it reaches its destination it is so outdated and old. Like, your cell phone has a better camera than New Horizons does! Certainly the next missions will have better equipment, but, especially with the outer Solar System, it takes so long that by the time you get there it’s not that great. But that is what you’ve got to deal with.  

Was this the first mission to put miscellaneous items on board?

It wasn’t the first spacecraft that put items on board. There were some [missions] where they would collect names and put them on a CD that went up with the spacecraft. Dawn had one going to Vesta and Ceres. And I am pretty sure the exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity had them as well. Voyager had the gold record on the side that had a video and pictures and murmurs of Earth. But actual physical items on New Horizons include: some of Clyde Tombaugh's ashes (he discovered Pluto), the Pluto stamp and a coin from Florida which has some mass to it to help balance the spacecraft! 

Our first close up look of Pluto gives us a clearer view of our solar system neighbourhood.   NASA/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Our first close up look of Pluto gives us a clearer view of our solar system neighbourhood. NASA/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


In your opinion, why should the general public care about this mission?

Well to me exploration is a natural human tendency. We are born curious and we want to know what our environment is like. It goes back to our origins, it goes back to pure exploration. This is all part of NASA’s main goals of exploring life in our Solar System and how it got to be here. This region that New Horizons is going to explore has been relatively unaltered since the Solar System formed. This mission will shed a lot of light on what that region of the Solar System is like because it is still going to look like how it did when the Solar System first originated. Finding out where we are in the universe and what our neighbourhood, our surroundings are like!

So, where to from here?

This month, NASA will announce which of the two targets within the spacecraft’s fuel budget will be visited. I will say though, one requires a lot less fuel than the other. However, this is all part of what is being considered as the “New Horizons extended mission”. It is not part of the primary mission. The primary mission includes the Pluto encounter, and then the 16 months following that to get all of the data back to Earth. 

We have to put in a new proposal to NASA to extend the New Horizons mission. The due date for that proposal is currently under negotiation; it hasn’t been agreed on. NASA would like it sooner rather than later. The principal investigator would like to have as much Pluto science [as possible] to put into the proposal, so he would rather have the proposal due a little later. But we are looking at the deadline as being early 2016 when that proposal would go in for an extended mission. 

Prof. Anne Verbiscer (right) with fellow astronomer, Katie Mack (left).  Photo by Jacinta den Besten (reproduced with permission)

Prof. Anne Verbiscer (right) with fellow astronomer, Katie Mack (left). Photo by Jacinta den Besten (reproduced with permission)


What if NASA said no to extending the mission?

The spacecraft will still go there, but there will be no money to pay your scientists to look at the data, to operate the spacecraft, to turn the cameras on at the right time and point them in the right direction. And to send the data back to Earth and to analyse the data that takes money. That is what the “no” would be. I can’t imagine the proposal not going through though. It would have to be some sort of catastrophic funding issue that NASA, for whatever reason, has their funding slashed. But I can’t see that happening. Having an asset like this, a fully functioning spacecraft in this region of the Solar System, just no.

So when will this new target be reached?

The KBO (Kuiper Belt Object) target will be reached in early 2019. Another thing that will go on, especially if the target chosen is the one that doesn’t eat up all of the available fuel, is that there are other KBOs to look at on the way from a distance. The first of those will be in April of 2016, and that is in the primary mission so we can do that without any trouble! But it’s not going to be a close-up look by any means. There are a number of targets, around 12-15, but it all has to be carefully planned fuel-budget wise because every time you want to look at something as you are passing by a distant target you still have to spin down the spacecraft so you can take those images. It is a real balancing act.      

NASA’s next possible target for exploration is Saturn’s largest moon, Europa.   NASA/Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

NASA’s next possible target for exploration is Saturn’s largest moon, Europa. NASA/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)


Looking at the bigger picture, what do you believe is the next big challenge in exploring our Solar System further?

Funding! In the US, we do these decadal surveys of the community every 10 years and they list their science priorities of what we want to do. It certainly is constrained by funding but it is a wishlist if we weren’t so limited. On the top of this list is a sample return from Mars, and second on the list is going to Europa. Right now, it looks like the latter is starting to become real. Europa is one of the likely places to find life in our Solar System since there is an ocean below its icy crust. 

But the coolest mission ever that almost got accepted was to put a boat on one of the lakes at the North Pole of Titan (Saturn’s largest moon). It was a small mission proposed to send a boat there called the TiME mission which stood for the Titan Mare Explorer. I believe it only had around 2 instruments on it to measure the composition of the lake and and measure probably the winds. You just can’t get any cooler than that!

And finally, what advice would you give to young scientists looking at getting into research?

My advice would be to do what really interests and excites you. Because that is what makes working fun. Try not to get discouraged by funding but that’s reality. That is the world we live in. Funding can get you down, well lack of it, but if you are really passionate about something and really driven, you will find a way.