Spaceflight Insider

Pluto lander concept unveiled by Global Aerospace Corporation

Pluto Lander concept

This image shows the Pluto “entrycraft” timeline: (1) Approach from interplanetary speed of about 31,000 mph (14 km/s); (2) decelerator deployment; (3) entry and descent through the atmosphere; (4) separation, translation, and landing; and (6) propulsive hops and jumps for surface exploration. Background Image Credit: L. Calçada of European Southern Observatory (ESO).

Just two years after New Horizons’ historic Pluto flyby, the Global Aerospace Corporation (GAC), a company that conducts aerospace research and development, is proposing a return mission featuring a Pluto lander.

Titled “Pluto Hop, Skip, and Jump” mission, the proposal, which features an integrated “entrycraft” that can decelerate from more than 30,000 miles (48,300 kilometers) per hour and safely soft land on Pluto’s surface, was presented by company representatives to the 2017 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Symposium in Denver, Colorado, on Monday, September 25.

The concept was developed with grant funding through NASA’s NIAC program and was inspired by New Horizons’ success.

While the primary focus is on a lander, GAC technology could also be used for a Pluto orbiter, the proposal notes. Specifically, it calls for using Pluto’s atmospheric drag to slow down a speeding spacecraft enough to bring it into orbit around the dwarf planet.

The lander, which will decelerate by using drag from Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere along with a small amount of propellant, will employ a “hopper” mode once on the surface, at times jumping from tens to hundreds of kilometers in succession to explore interesting surface features.

“Pluto’s surface pressure is just ten-millionths of Earth’s, but its atmosphere is extremely spread out, extending about 1,000 miles [1,600 km] above the surface. This extended and ultra-low density atmosphere is ideal for dissipating large amounts of kinetic energy by means of aerodynamic drag, but the key is making the drag area very large while keeping system weight at a minimum,” said Phase 1 NIAC principal investigator Dr. Benjamin Goldman.

To successfully decelerate using the drag of Pluto’s thin atmosphere, the “entrycraft” will have to be about as big as a football field.

The proposal calls for testing “entrycraft” prototypes from low-Earth orbit by placing them in CubeSats to be released either from the International Space Station (ISS) or from launch vehicles that would carry them as secondary payloads.

The actual design of the aerodynamic decelerator will be conducted by ILC Dover LP, a GAC research partner company that designed spacesuits for Apollo astronauts and extra-vehicular (EVA) suits for the Space Shuttle and ISS astronauts.

ILC Dover LP also designed the airbags that successfully landed the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars.

GAC envisions the Pluto lander conducting various science experiments on the surface. Science goals of the mission include learning more about Pluto’s origin and relationship to the Solar System’s larger planets and Kuiper Belt objects; studying outgassing processes, such as cryovolcanism, to better understand interactions between the subsurface and atmosphere; studying geomorphology in multiple surface locations; searching for underground oceans by sampling Pluto’s crust; and measuring atmospheric pressure and temperature to corroborate New Horizons’ findings.

Like New Horizons, the “Pluto Hop, Skip, and Jump” mission is envisioned as falling under NASA’s New Frontiers class of exploration missions.

According to the proposal, a return to Pluto could be underway in just 12 years if the project gains collaboration from NASA’s various centers such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Langley Research Center (LaRC), the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU-APL), and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).

The immediate next step for the proposal will be a NASA feasibility test.

This presentation marks GAC’s fourth presentation to the NIAC program, which is aimed at exploring futuristic and innovative concepts in the aerospace field.

Sessions of the 2017 NIAC Symposium, which lasts from September 25 to 27, can be viewed online via Livestream (recordings of sessions can be found on the right-hand column under “Event Posts”).



Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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