Undaunted Exploration: Revealing our Solar System from Asteroids to Pluto

EAPS News
Tuesday, December 13, 2016

On November 30, 2016, Prof. Richard P. Binzel spoke to a meeting of  the New England Section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Binzel spoke extensively about each project, sharing tales and the travails of each mission, and how they reinforce the scientific imperative for undaunted exploration ever deeper into our Solar System.


Undaunted Exploration: Revealing our Solar System from Asteroids to Pluto

Binzel is a co-investigator on NASA's New Horizons fly-by of Pluto in July 2015 and is Principal Investigator of the student-built REXIS experiment aboard NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid return mission launched on September 8th, 2016. OSIRIS-REx will reach the near-Earth asteroid Bennu in 2018 and return a sample to the earth.

In his lecture Binzel spoke extensively about each project, sharing tales and the travails of each mission, and how they reinforce the scientific imperative for undaunted exploration ever deeper into our Solar System.

NASA New Horizons Pluto fly-by:

After nearly two decades of struggling for approval, a NASA funded Pluto mission finally reached the launch pad in January 2006.  Nine-and-a-half years later in July 2015, the piano-sized New Horizons spacecraft reached the Pluto system revealing an amazingly bizarre planetary world.  Ice mountains as tall as the Rockies and smooth plains of frozen carbon monoxide 500 km across are just some of the surprising features.  Pluto appears to be a globally changing planet with seasonal cycles ranging from decades to millennia producing an evolving landscape of nitrogen ice glaciers and variable atmospheric pressure.  Together with its largest satellite, Pluto and Charon form a “double planet” system orbiting a common center of gravity located outside of either body. Charon’s surface also appears relatively young and crater-free, implying some recent era geologic activity. As New Horizons continues its voyage out of the solar system, plans are underway for 2019 encounter with a newly discovered Kuiper Belt object directly on the spacecraft’s path.

NASA's OSIRIS REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission:

Exploration closer to home is also underway, with the student-built Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer (REXIS) successfully launched from Cape Canaveral aboard an Atlas-V rocket on September 8th.  REXIS flies on the payload deck of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return mission en-route to a 2018 rendezvous with the 500 meter near-Earth asteroid Bennu.  REXIS will map Bennu’s surface in X-ray light, where the measured fluorescence in response to impinging solar x-rays will reveal the elemental abundances that comprise the asteroid.  Students and staff from MIT and Harvard have collaborated in the competitively selected design, build, and now in-flight operation of REXIS.  The science goal of REXIS is to map the surface of Bennu at resolution up to 50 meters so as to inform the selection of the sample return site.

Organizer: AIAA, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, New England Section - AIAA is the worlds largest technical society dedicated to the global aerospace profession, with more than 35,000 members in 79 countries.

Story Image - courtesy V. McKenna


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Richard Binzel has been an MIT faculty member for nearly 30 years as a Professor of Planetary Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences and holds a Joint Professor appointment in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.  He is known as one of the world's leading scientists in the study of Pluto and other areas of planetary science that include asteroids and meteorites.

Binzel, who published his first scientific paper at the age of 15, completed his Bachelor's degree in physics at Macalester College.  In 1980, Binzel was one of the first recipients of the American Physical Society’s Apker Award for research achievements by an undergraduate.   He went on to receive his Ph.D. from the University of Texas where his research included the first direct mapping of Pluto’s surface, revealing unexplainable features entreating further exploration.  Binzel was honored with a Presidential Young Investigator award from George H. Bush in 1990 and the Harold C. Urey Prize from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences in 1991.  Binzel was named an MIT MacVicar Faculty Fellow in 1994 in recognition of his dedication to teaching.  Asteroid number 2873 bears his name, an honor bestowed by the International Astronomical Union in recognition of his contributions to the field.

Binzel was a founding member of the “Pluto Underground,” which in 1989 began the long task of designing and gaining approval for a spacecraft mission to Pluto.  Surviving cancellations of six prior mission starts, the New Horizons mission design was approved by NASA and finally launched in January 2006 on its nine-and-one-half year voyage to Pluto.  Binzel serves as a Science Team Co-Investigator whose responsibilities include integrating the results between mission elements studying different aspects of geology, geophysics, and composition.  His particular interests are centered on understanding the seasonal processes that shape Pluto’s diverse surface.

American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, New England Section