Summers on Team Selected to Design Pluto Mission

Posted: December 17, 2001 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron

Michael Summers, associate professor of computational sciences and physics, is one of 21 scientists on the New Horizons team selected this month to design and carry out NASA’s space mission to Pluto, the only planet that hasn’t yet been probed by man.

The mission’s goal is to fly by Pluto and its satellite Charon and then on to the Kuiper Belt, a region that contains icy asteroid-like objects believed to be remnants from the formation of the solar system. The primary science goals of the mission are to answer questions about these bodies’ surface properties, geology, interior makeup, and atmospheres.

Summers’ interest is in Pluto’s unique atmosphere, which literally freezes and falls to the surface during the planet’s super-cold winter, then evaporates as it gets closer to the sun. There is urgency to complete the mission as scheduled, Summers says, since the planet is moving away from the sun and its atmosphere may freeze solid after 2020.

The team has received $30 million for the design phase of the project; the entire project is expected to cost $500 million. The spacecraft is scheduled to launch in 2004, reach Pluto and Charon around 2014 and visit one or two Kuiper Belt objects between 2015 and 2019.

Summers says there is some controversy as to whether Pluto should be classified as a planet or whether it too is a Kuiper Belt object. “We’re always surprised when we make the first reconnaissance of a planet–things are never quite as we expect,” he says.

For more information on the mission, see pluto.jhuapl.edu.

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