NASA lead investigator describes Pluto mission

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Renowned NASA engineer and planetary scientist Alan Stern told the story of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto in a forum address on Jan. 28.

Stern said he has loved science since his youth, recalling taking all the science and math classes he could in high school. He went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics, two master’s degrees and a doctorate in astrophysics. This lead him to career experiences that he had always dreamt about.

He has been a part of over 24 missions and was the principal investigator 14 times. He said he feels that the greatest work he was a part of was the New Horizons mission.

“It’s like your children. You’re not supposed to have a favorite (mission),” Stern said. “But I have to tell you, New Horizons is absolutely my favorite.”

Alan Stern speaks to students at a BYU forum on Jan. 28, 2020. (Hannah Miner)

Stern explained that this had to do in part with the mission being one of the last “firsts.” Though the other planets had high-resolution images, no one had been able to take any of Pluto. He put together a team of graduate students and professors to figure out how to make that happen. They called themselves ‘The Pluto Underground.’

The Pluto Underground was not met without setbacks.

“There was not a clear path,” Stern said. “We didn’t just take one defeat and get up and have success, or two defeats and get up and have a success. All of the 90s and into the early 2000s, time after time after time, we have to start over and reinvent and figure out a better way.”

In the early 2000s, the National Academy of Sciences conducted a survey to determine the highest priorities for exploring the solar system. The exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper belt was ranked No. 1. NASA was approached with three different proposals for exploring Pluto and the Kuiper belt, including Stern’s.

“Our team was kind of the underdogs,” Stern said. “We knew that if we collaborated equally enough and proposed a spotless proposal, that we could compete in the big leagues.”

Stern’s proposal was chosen, and he and his received funding to bring the project to life — but only enough for them to get it right the first time. The team also had a deadline: they needed to launch in 2006 in order to use Jupiter’s gravity to move the spacecraft faster through the solar system.

“I don’t think any of us really realized the commitment it took over the next few years to get this design built,” Stern said. 

Innovative ideas were crucial to make it work. Because of the limited budget, the team relied on better engineering and more testing to cut costs. They decided to transmit data at a slower rate to run the spacecraft on just one nuclear power generator, which typically cost around $100 million. 

“If you come to trust one another and have collaboration, that really lets people in teams achieve things that are larger than life that you could never hope to achieve without that collaborative process,” Stern said.

A proactive environment was also necessary to the success of the mission, Stern said. The team was encouraged to expose problems early on.

“We reward people for bringing problems forward,” Stern said, “That’s been a big part of making things successful.”

The spacecraft, which Stern compared to the size of a “downtown office building,” launched on Jan. 19, 2006. The rocket hit supersonic speeds after a mere 28 seconds and was already in orbit after just eight minutes. 

New Horizons became the fastest spacecraft to date. It traveled almost a million miles a day and crossed the orbit of the moon nine hours after it launched. To put that into perspective, Stern compared it to Apollo missions, which took three days to get to the moon. New Horizons reached Jupiter in 13 months, compared to the four years it took a previous mission. The spacecraft even provided 700 scientific observations of Jupiter en route to Pluto. 

After nine and a half years, New Horizons arrived at Pluto nine minutes earlier than predicted. 

The moment Stern and his team received satellite transmission of images of Pluto, they realized they had actually done it, he recalled.

“You could just feel the emotion in that room for people who worked on this for 15 years to make it happen, who had to trust one other in this very complicated collaboration, who had to be committed across a decade and a half,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times people who told me on the team, ‘I’ve never worked on a mission that was anything like this, that I’ve ever had that kind of emotional attachment to.’”  

Many ground-breaking discoveries have been made from the New Horizons mission, such as Pluto’s nitrogen glaciers and mountain ranges covered in snowcaps. Stern gave a shout out to BYU planetary studies and geology professor Jani Radebaugh, who discovered dunes on Pluto after studying images from the New Horizons probe.

“Pluto is somehow, 4.5 billion years after being born, still geologically active, creating terrains of the scale of Texas all the time, and no one knows how it does that,” Stern said. “It is a complete rethink of the way planetary geophysics works on these small worlds.”

At the close of his address, Stern invited those who want to know more about his mission to read the book he wrote about it, “Chasing New Horizons.” An image of Pluto backlit by the sun appeared on the screen behind Stern, transfixing students in the Marriott Center.

“It’s my favorite picture of the entire planet, not as a scientist, but as a human,” Stern said, adding that this is because the picture can only be taken from the backside of Pluto. “Your spacecraft has to be on the far side. You have to accomplish the project. After 26 years, 2,500 colleagues, many reversals and many successes, this is the picture that says it all.”

Stern received a standing ovation from students. His speech was followed by a Q&A session. 

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