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Space & Planetary Science

Will NASA Have To 'Bail Out' On Close Pluto Encounter?

By Keith Cowing
October 16, 2012
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Pluto’s Moons and Possible Rings May Be Hazards: New Horizons and the Gauntlet it may Encounter in 2015, SwRI
“Although we’d prefer to go closer, going farther from Pluto is certainly preferable to running through a dangerous gauntlet of debris, and possibly even rings, that may orbit close to Pluto among its complex system of moons. … We may not know whether to fire our engines on New Horizons and bail out to safer distances until just 10 days before reaching Pluto, so this may be a bit of a cliff-hanger. Stay tuned.”
Keith’s note: That there are conditions surrounding this distant world – ones that are just being discovered – should not be unexpected. That’s why we go to such great lengths to explore these worlds in the first place. But these discoveries about Pluto and its environs are not being made by the New Horizons spacecraft – but rather by Earth- and space-based telescopes we’ve had for a long time – before New Horizons was even launched. But now (oops) 7 years after launch and this potential show stopper pops up. Perhaps some better pre-launch recon was in order prior to departure.
As for use for the phrase “bail out”, I wonder what PR genius approved that quote – it makes it sound like NASA did not do its home work first and may eventually have to make a drastic decision as a result.
Also, it is rather odd for NASA not to be announcing a potential threat to one of its spacecraft and a serious departure i.e. “bail out” from its prime mission. What’s up with that? Waiting for NASA to reply. I am told a reply is being formulated to the questions I submitted to SMD PAO:
“- Will there be a formal statement from NASA regarding debris issues in the vicinity of Pluto and how it will affect mission plans?
– Will NASA be spending additional funds for additional telescope observations of Pluto? If so how much will these observations cost, what budget pays these costs, what telescopes/spacecraft will be used, and how long will these observations be conducted?
– When will contingency plans for changing the trajectory of New Horizons at Pluto be finalized?
– Who (Individual, agency) makes the final decision as to whether New Horizons continues on its original trajectory or if that trajectory is modified?
– When was NASA notified by New Horizons mission team that the original flight trajectory was in jeopardy due to debris concerns?”

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.