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Pluto Orbiter/lander and sample return missions are not impossible using chemical propulsion, but are possible with nuclear thermal propulsion. Using the MITEE nuclear engine, a spacecraft could first orbit Pluto, mapping it, and then land at a selected site, 12 years after the departure form Earth. If surface water/ice is available, fresh H2 propellant could be manufactured by electrolysis of melt H2O using power from the bi-modal nuclear engine, enabling multiple hops to new sites for further data collection. A warm water probe could also be deployed to explore the interior of Pluto's ice sheets. After completing exploration, the spacecraft could return samples from Pluto to Earth with a 12-year trip time. Mission architectures and the design of the spacecraft, nuclear propulsion engine, propellant manufacturing unit and warm water probe are described herein.
Aerospace Conference, 2003. Proceedings. 2003 IEEE (Volume:1 )
Date of Conference: March 8-15, 2003