Let’s Do Launch

Mason scientist plays part in first space mission to Pluto

By Tara Laskowski, MFA ’05

Mike Summers

Mike Summers

Patience is a virtue, especially for Mike Summers. His 12 long years of working and waiting on the New Horizons mission to Pluto paid off in January 2006 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, when he stood on a VIP platform about three miles from the launch site and felt the ground shake as the missile fought gravity to launch into space.

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

But the time isn’t daunting for Summers, professor of planetary science and astronomy at Mason and an expert in planetary atmospheres. As one of the co-investigators of the $700 million New Horizons 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,” says Summers.

Not much is known about the farthest planet in our solar system including whether it is indeed the farthest planet and whether it is indeed even a planet. Summers believes that the information gathered from this mission to Pluto will be surprising and enlightening.

 “The mission is in the forefront of space science and may shed light on a number of outstanding issues related to this mysterious planet and the entire solar system,” says Menas Kafatos, dean of the School of Computational Sciences.

New Horizons, drawing electricity from a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator and operating on less power than a pair of 100-watt household light bulbs, will be the fastest spacecraft ever launched, reaching lunar orbit distance in just nine hours; other spacecraft have taken an average of three days to reach the moon. New Horizons could reach the Pluto system as early as mid-2015.

When the spacecraft reaches Pluto, it will conduct a five-month- long study possible only from its close-up vantage. It will characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and Pluto’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.

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 past Pluto into the Kuiper Belt, a crowded mass of icy objects swirling beyond the outer planets. This largest structure in our planetary system holds 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 such as Summers have hoped 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 unique in its atmosphere, size, and orbit.

Pluto’s atmosphere of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane is the aspect of the planet that intrigues Summers. Pluto’s surface temperature varies greatly because of the planet’s eccentric orbit and polar tilt, which also may cause Pluto to have the most complex seasonal patterns of any planet in the solar system.

And Pluto is cold. An average day is 350 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. At that temperature, says Summers, ice is almost as hard as steel. Because it isn’t 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.

A Stellar Study

Although the spacecraft 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 its health.

While New Horizons is speeding to the outer planet, Summers has plenty of other projects to keep him busy. In addition to teaching astronomy and physics courses at Mason, he is also a co-investigator on two other projects: AIM (Astronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere), an Earth satellite mission to study high-altitude clouds and climate, and ARES (Aerial Regional-scale Environmental Survey), a mission to study Mars’ atmosphere using a remote-controlled airplane.