The Outer Frontier: Mason Scientist on First Pluto Space Mission Team

Posted: January 23, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Artist's conception of New Horizons spacecraft
An artist’s conception shows the New Horizons spacecraft flying by Pluto and looking back at the sun.

By Tara Laskowski

Patience is a virtue, especially in Mike Summers’ career. He’s waited 12 long years to see the launch of the New Horizons spacecraft mission to Pluto. That decade of working and waiting paid off last Thursday at Cape Canaveral, Fla., when Summers stood on a VIP platform about three miles from the launch site and felt the ground shake as the rocket fought gravity and shot into space.

Now he has to wait 8 to 10 more years for the craft to reach its destination.

Michael Summers
Michael Summers

But the time isn’t daunting for Summers, a George Mason professor of planetary science and astronomy and an expert in planetary atmospheres. As one of the co-investigators of the $700 million mission headed by Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Summers is willing to wait for the valuable information.

“These things take patience. A lot of time and dedication goes into projects like this, and I think the results will be extremely rewarding.”

Not much is known about the furthest planet in our solar system – including not only if it is indeed the furthest planet, but also if it should even be categorized as a planet. This is the first space mission to Pluto, and Summers believes that the information gathered will be surprising and enlightening.

“This is what we call ‘discovery science,’” he says. “The information we have about Pluto is scarce. We have good pictures of every other planet, but not Pluto.”

The Scientific Mission

New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched. It reached lunar orbit distance in just nine hours (other spacecrafts have taken an average of three days to reach the moon) and is expected to pass Jupiter in 13 months. Yet the entire spacecraft, drawing electricity from a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator, operates on less power than a pair of 100-watt household light bulbs.

New Horizons could reach the Pluto system as early as mid-2015, conducting a five-month-long study possible only from the close-up vantage of a spacecraft. It will characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and Plutos’s moon, Charon; map their surface compositions and temperatures; and examine Pluto’s atmospheric composition and structure. New Horizons also will study the small moons recently discovered in the Pluto system.

Nose cone of rocket being rolled to the launch pad
The nose cone of the New Horizons rocket as it was rolled to the launch pad.

The sophisticated instruments and cameras will take more than 60,000 pictures of Pluto as it passes by the planet. The craft will then continue on past Pluto into the Kuiper Belt, a crowded mass of icy objects often called the “Third Zone” of our planetary system, swirling beyond the outer planets. The Kuiper Belt is the largest structure in our planetary system, holding an estimated 100,000-plus miniature worlds with diameters larger than 100 kilometers.

Why Pluto?

Ever since it was discovered in 1930, Pluto has been a mystery that scientists like Summers have been hoping to unravel. Not only is it the farthest planet in the solar system – more than a billion miles away from Neptune – but it is completely different from the other planets. Called an “ice dwarf,” Pluto is also unique in its atmosphere, size and orbit.

New Horizons decal
Workmen apply the New Horizons decal to the side of the rocket.
New Horizons photos

The aspect of the planet that intrigues Summers is Pluto’s atmosphere. Where Earth’s atmosphere contains only one gas (water vapor) that regularly transitions between solid and gas, Pluto’s atmosphere contains three: nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane.

Furthermore, Pluto’s surface temperature varies greatly because of the planet’s eccentric orbit and polar tilt. As the planet moves farther away and cools, most astronomers believe that the average surface temperature will eventually drop and that most of the atmosphere will freeze on the surface. Because of this, and because the planet is essentially tipped on its side, with its rotational north pole 28 degrees below the ecliptic plane, Pluto may have the most complex seasonal patterns of any planet in the solar system.

And Pluto is cold. An average day is 350 degrees below zero. At that kind of temperature, says Summers, ice is almost as hard as steel. Since it is not possible to simulate Pluto’s complex environment in the laboratory, Summers hopes that by observing the planet, scientists will begin to understand why it is different and how it behaves.

“I think we will be very surprised by Pluto,” says Summers.

Monitoring Space

Though the craft will not reach its destination for some time, scientists working on the mission will have plenty to do in the meantime. As New Horizons finds its way to the outer limits of our solar system, scientists will track solar wind and dust particles in space. The spacecraft will “check in” each week to give operators an instant read on spacecraft health.

While keeping one eye on New Horizons, Summers will be occupied with other projects as well. In addition to teaching astronomy and physics courses at Mason, he is a co-investigator on two other projects: an Earth satellite mission to study high altitude clouds and climate called AIM and a Mars scout mission called ARES that will fly the first remote-controlled airplane on a different planet.

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