February 23, 98

Vol. 13 , No. 08   

View Entire Issue (Vol. 13 , No. 08)

Extraterrestrial Environments: Pluto Explorer Project

In 1991, as one of a series of U.S. postage stamps commemorating planetary exploration, the stamp for Pluto carried the legend "Not yet explored." Robert L. Staehle, a JPL aeronautical engineer, quickly convinced NASA administrator Daniel Goldin that the stamp provided a perfect challenge to implement Goldin's "cheaper, faster, better" agenda for future NASA missions and promptly became manager of the Pluto Fast Flyby (now Pluto-Kuiper Express) preproject.

In the ensuing years Staehle has also become manager of the Europa Orbiter and Solar Probe preprojects, and the three are officially know as "Ice and Fire." They constitute a multimission approach to explore the hottest, coldest, and hardest-to- reach regions of our solar system. Pluto-Kuiper Express will complete the reconnaissance of the known planets in our solar system, with a possible extension to the newly-discovered Kuiper Disk. Solar Probe will penetrate deeply our nearest star's atmosphere to measure the birth of solar wind and image solar phenomena.

Europa, fourth largest satellite of Jupiter, has gained the rank of one of the highest priority targets for a outer solar system exploration mission. If liquid water were to exist on Europa, it would not be unreasonable to speculate on the existence of life there, perhaps occurring near undersea volcanic vents just as life on earth has been discovered at great ocean depths, beyond the penetration of sunlight, thriving on upwelling chemical nutrients from the interior of the planet. The Europa Orbiter will look for a global subsurface liquid water ocean. If the ocean exists, science measurements will identify locations where the ocean may be accessible to future missions to search for evidence of life.

Staehle's lecture, enhanced by slides, will describe the missions and the extreme environmental conditions encountered en route and at the destinations. This is the second lecture on extraterrestrial environments sponsored by the Roberts Environmental Center.