On July 14, 2015, the New Horizons probe made the closest approach in human history to the distant Pluto system.
As it turns out, New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern is already thinking about an encore Pluto mission. Below, you can listen to Stern divulging some details in a quick flyby-day buttonhole interview.
If you can’t listen right now, or would rather just read about it, don’t worry: We’ve included a transcript.
This interview took place prior to confirmation the evening of July 14 that New Horizons had indeed survived its Pluto encounter and gathered all the data it traveled there to get.
Dan Leone: Hey everyone, it’s Dan Leone with SpaceNews. It’s Tuesday, July the 14th. That means it’s New Horizons Pluto Flyby day. I’m out here in Laurel, Maryland, with a herd of media and there has been no shortage of press briefings following the 7:49 AM Pluto flyby, which, as far as anybody knows, happened. We’ll get signal conformation sometime around 9:00 in the evening and know for sure.
In the meantime, we’ve all been sitting through a long series of media briefings and at the end of one of these I got the microphone and asked Alan Stern when we might next get to visit Pluto.
And Alan said, “Well I’ve secretly been working on a lander.” There’s a round of applause from the room a smattering of laughter, but I wasn’t so sure that Alan was joking.
So afterwards I wormed my way through the reporter’s scrum, pointed the microphone at him and asked the question again, just to be sure.
Leone: I’m just out for a soundbyte, Alan, so having opened pandora’s box have you, like, actually been working on a lander?.
Alan Stern: I’ve been thinking about the next thing to do, and in my own mind, I think that a lander is smarter. But the lander that I’d like to fly is actually a lander to Charon. Because we land on the Pluto-facing hemisphere of Charon, we have an orbiter that’s looking at Pluto every day from the surface, and we can look at all the small satellites as they move through the sky, and you have a lander on Charon. So it’s like a hyper obiter if you put a lander on Charon.
Leone: You shared the plan with anyone yet? Any co-conspirators?
Stern: (Laughs) No, I’ve just been thinking about it myself, to be honest.
Leone: So a quick reminder about the order of operations in NASA planetary science. First, you pick a target, then you do a flyby like New Horizons did, then you go back to the same target, orbit, land, collect a sample if you can.
But what Alan is proposing is sort of smushing the orbiting and landing phases together by putting a lander on Charon, Pluto’s moon.
This has also been, by the way, a target of Pluto flyby photography. It’s sort of far-fetched idea at this point and I wouldn’t interpret Alan’s comments as evidence that NASA is gonna trip over itself to fund this mission.
On the other hand, it’s not impossible. At Laurel, Maryland, at the Applied Physics Laboratory, I’m Dan Leone.