Trident won’t need the broad solar arrays that many space missions use. Instead, it will use a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG, which taps nuclear decay for power and heating. While such nuclear-powered batteries were broadly used in older missions, NASA now faces a shortage of the plutonium necessary to fuel RTGs. But two of them are up for grabs in the Discovery program, and Trident, traveling to the solar system’s dark and distant edges, would be a prime candidate for this BYO energy solution.

In addition to a smaller launch vehicle, part of the mission’s low cost will come from recycling equipment developed for other missions. “There are no miracles. We’re not doing anything fancy,” Prockter says. Instead, they’ll borrow from missions like JUICE (the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer), cobbling together a suite of instruments to essentially create a mission from off-the-rack components, instead of designing them from scratch.

Their design would produce a narrow angle camera that works like a telescope, so NASA could image the moon from a distance on approach and departure. It would also include a wide-angle camera that can see in low light for the flyby itself, to more carefully image the surface. They’ll have a spectrometer to study the composition of the moon and any plumes they spot. And Trident will also sport a magnetometer, an instrument the Galileo spacecraft used to detect underground oceans on Jupiter’s icy moons.

Prockter says their cameras, even with just a flyby, would be able to capture almost the entire surface of Triton. “We can still make out lots of geologic features,” she says. And she also points out that Triton’s surface is very new, second only to Io in the solar system. “It’s probably active today,” Prockter says. “Having an active body so far out in the solar system would be incredible … It’s such a strange and alien world. We want to go and figure it out.”


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