36th DPS Meeting, 8-12 November 2004
Session 14 Future Missions
Poster I, Tuesday, November 9, 2004, 4:00-7:00pm, Exhibition Hall 1A

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[14.07] A Neptune Vision Mission using Nuclear Electric Propulsion

D. H. Atkinson (University of Idaho), B. Bienstock (Boeing), K. H. Baines (JPL), P. Mahaffey (NASA GSFC), P. Steffes (Georgia Institute of Technology), S. Atreya (University of Michigan), A. Stern (Southwest Research Institute), M. Wright (NASA ARC), Boeing Team, Ball Aerospace Team

The giant planets of the outer solar system divide into two distinct classes: the ``gas giants" Jupiter and Saturn, primarily comprising hydrogen and helium; and the ``ice giants" Uranus and Neptune that are believed to contain significant amounts of the heavier elements including oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and sulfur. Detailed comparisons of the internal structures and compositions of the gas giants with those of the ice giants will yield valuable insights into the processes that formed the solar system and, perhaps, extrasolar systems. By 2012, Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, and possibly a New Frontiers Jupiter mission will have yielded significant information on the chemical and physical properties of Jupiter and Saturn. A Neptune mission would deliver the corresponding key data for an ice giant planet.

A Neptune Orbiter with Probes mission utilizing nuclear electric propulsion (NEP) to study the deep Neptune atmosphere to pressures ranging from several hundred bars to possibly several kilobars is being examined. Additional targets include Neptune's enigmatic ring system, Triton, Nereid, and the other icy satellites of Neptune. Power and propulsion would be provided using nuclear electric technologies. Such an ambitious mission requires a number of technical issues be investigated and resolved, including: (1) giant-planet atmospheric probe thermal protection system (TPS) design, (2) descent probe design including seals, windows, penetrations and inlets, and pressure vessel, (3) probe telecommunications through the dense and absorbing Neptunian atmosphere, (4) developing a realizable mission design that allows proper targeting and timing of the entry probe(s) while offering adequate opportunities for detailed measurements of Triton and the other icy satellites as well as ring science, (5) and, within NEP mass and power constraints, defining an appropriate suite of science instruments to explore the depths of the Neptune atmosphere, magnetic field, Triton, and the icy satellites. Another driving factor in the design of the Orbiter and Probes is the necessity to maintain a fully operational flight system during the lengthy transit time from launch through Neptune encounter, and beyond.

Following our response to the recent NASA Research Announcement (NRA) for Space Science Vision Missions for mission studies by NASA for implementation in the 2013 or later time frame, our team has been selected to explore the feasibility of such a Neptune mission.

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Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 36 #4
© 2004. The American Astronomical Soceity.