What would be our next step in the exploration of the outer system once New Horizons has visited one or more Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs)? One intriguing target with a nearby ice giant to recommend it is Triton, Neptune’s unusual moon, which was imaged up close only once, by Voyager 2 in 1989. The views were spectacular but at the time of the encounter, most of Triton’s northern hemisphere remained unseen because it was in darkness. Only one hemisphere showed up clearly as the spacecraft passed the moon at a distance of 40,000 kilometers.
Our next visit should tell us much more, but we’re still working out the concept. Thus Steven Oleson’s Phase II grant from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) office. Oleson (NASA GRC) calls the idea Triton Hopper. In his Phase I study, he identified the various risks of the mission, analyzing its performance and its ability to collect propellant. For Triton Hopper — moving from point to point — would rely on a radioisotope engine that would collect nitrogen ice and use it for propellant, mining the moon’s surface to keep the mission viable.