When Mission Impossible Becomes Possible: Mason Professor Plans for Pluto Encounter

Posted: April 13, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Jupiter and Io
A montage of images taken in early 2007 by the New Horizons spacecraft during a flyby of Jupiter and its moon, Io.
Image courtesy of NASA

By Leah Kerkman Fogarty

A bumper sticker hangs on the door to Michael Summers’ office that reads: My other vehicle is on its way to Pluto.

Michael Summers
Michael Summers

This isn’t a hyperbolic statement. Summers, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, has been working on NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto since 2003. He says that sending a spacecraft to the faraway dwarf ice planet was a goal conceived nine years earlier at a conference.

“That was the first time anyone had seriously considered sending a spacecraft to Pluto,” Summers says. “Because it’s just so far away, many people didn’t even think it was possible.”

But it certainly is possible, and it is literally in motion. The spacecraft was launched in January 2006, and even though Summers describes it as a “quick mission,” the encounter won’t occur until 2015. Considering that Pluto is about four billion miles away, that’s quite a long flight.

“This is a challenging mission because we have to build the spacecraft and launch it, and then we can’t touch it,” says Summers. “So it has to work. We have to make it as simple as possible, but to do as much science as possible.”

Planning for an Encounter

While the spacecraft approaches Pluto, Summers has been keeping busy. He’s part of the mission’s Pluto encounter team, which is planning the spacecraft’s Pluto flyby down to the tenth of a second.

“We’ve been planning the encounter sequence for a year and a half now, and we’ve got another year to go before we get to the point where we’re pretty happy with the timeline,” says Summers. “It’s a lot of work, it’s very detailed. But we get to explore a kind of planet we’ve never experienced before.”

The encounter portion of the mission will start about six months prior to Pluto’s flyby, but Summers says the bulk of the observation will take place during the 70-minute stretch in which the spacecraft is closest to Pluto, which has been dubbed the “platinum hour.”

In preparation for that encounter, the New Horizons spacecraft has been outfitted with seven different instruments to gather as much data as possible, sort of like a high-tech Swiss Army knife. From an infrared imager to a dust counter, the mission will provide astronomers with information that they’ve never been able to collect before.

On its way to Pluto, the spacecraft made a pit stop, or rather a slowdown, near Jupiter.

“We decided to fly the spacecraft by Jupiter to build up speed from the planet’s huge gravitational field, which would then sling it out into the outer solar system to get to Pluto as quickly as possible,” says Summers. That maneuver made it the fastest human-made object in space.

Expecting the Unexpected

Using the huge planet’s gravity shaved about three years off the New Horizons journey and, as an added bonus, yielded some interesting data from the Jupiter flyby, which happened in February 2007. Summers is most excited about some images that were taken of one of Jupiter’s moons, Io.

“One of the things we saw was odd. We saw a volcano on the moon, throwing up volcanic material, such as gas and dust, 200 miles into space. I was just speechless to see something like that. I did my PhD thesis on the atmosphere of this moon, so I’m as much of an expert as you can be, and I was stunned.”

Summers hopes for discoveries such as these during the Pluto flyby as well.

“Every time we study a planet, and this is an ironclad rule, we’re always surprised,” Summers says. “We know we’re going to be surprised, but we’re still surprised.”

But what does a volcano on Jupiter’s moon mean? What will the observations from Pluto tell us? Summers says that understanding other planets could lead to a greater understanding of Earth.

“We don’t know what the Earth looked like four billion years ago, but we’ve got objects out in space that haven’t changed in that time. They’re pieces of history,” says Summers. “So if we get back information from this mission that allows us to fill in that history, that would be important. It will be a framework for understanding the history of the solar system.”

Summers hopes for more missions in the future, but says we’re about 30 years away from actually landing on the ice planet.

This article originally appeared in Mason Research 2009.

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