🛰️ NASA’s New Horizons mission taught us a lot about Pluto, but the spacecraft sped past so quickly. The next step is an orbiter, and now NASA is starting to seriously consider one.

NASA has given the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) funding to start developing the idea. SwRI is tasked with investigating “the important attributes, feasibility and cost of a possible future Pluto orbiter mission.”

New Horizons visited Pluto before heading deeper into the Kuiper Belt and visiting 2014 MU69, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) also known as Ultima Thule. The spacecraft may even visit a third KBO. The proposed Pluto Orbiter would follow a similar path.

Thanks to New Horizons, we know that Pluto is much more complex than we thought. We know that the surface of Pluto is far more active than we could’ve imagined. We know that Pluto has an atmosphere, and we think that Pluto once had liquid on its surface. Pluto may also have a sub-surface ocean, possibly linked to Pluto’ so-called heart, the Tombaugh Region.

“The exploration of Pluto wasn’t easy, but it sure was worth it”, writes Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons “It took 14 years (1989 to 2003), about a dozen different mission concept proposals, and the weight of the first National Academy Planetary Science Decadal Survey just to unleash the funding. After a fierce competition among rival teams, NASA ultimately selected New Horizons as its Pluto flyby mission.”

Read Alan Stern’s own words at Astronomy.com and read more about the new mission at Universe Today.

We can also recommend the book Chasing New Horizons about the groundbreaking Pluto mission.