NASA announced today that the agency is seeking proposals from principal investigators and institutions around the world to develop the first mission to Pluto.
This Announcement of Opportunity marks the first time the Office of Space Science has solicited proposals for a mission to an outer planet, such as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, to be selected on a competitive basis similar to the agency's Discovery Program. That program features lower cost highly focused missions with rapid development of the scientific spacecraft. The proposals are due to NASA Headquarters by March 19, 2001.
"Competition has worked quite well in other NASA space science programs, and I expect that, through this approach, we will see a number of creative ideas from innovative thinkers and organizations that have not been able to participate in outer planet exploration before," said Dr. Ed Weiler, Associate Administrator for Space Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC.
"In the past decade a number of organizations outside NASA have gained the expertise to successfully fly deep space missions, and in the past few months we have heard the calls from many in the scientific community in favor of open competition in our outer planet program," Dr. Weiler added. "I think it's time to try this new approach. We hope that opening these missions to competition will greatly benefit science and space exploration."
Dr. Colleen Hartman, currently the Deputy Director of the research Division for the Office of Space Science, has been selected as Outer Planets Program Director, and will be the single point of contact at NASA Headquarters for budget, content and policy direction.
The decision to solicit proposals comes three months after unacceptably large cost increases on the Pluto/Kuiper Express (PKE) mission led NASA to issue a stop-order on the project Sept. 12 to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. Dr. Weiler made the decision earlier this week to open the Pluto mission to competition. The Europa Orbiter mission will continue to be developed at JPL.
The Announcement of Opportunity will solicit proposals for investigations that require the development of a complete mission to the Pluto-Charon system and the Kuiper Belt beyond, including expendable launch vehicle and spacecraft, its bus and systems, and the science instrumentation package.
Following peer-review, NASA will select two or more of the top proposals for more detailed study and will "downselect" the winning proposal in August 2001.
There are no restrictions on the launch date but there is a goal to reach Pluto by 2015. NASA will cap the cost of the Pluto mission at $500 million in FY 2000 dollars.
NASA is sponsoring a two-and-a-half-day workshop for scientists, engineers, technologists, and others from academia, NASA centers, federal laboratories, the private sector, and international partners to be held in early February. The workshop will provide an open forum for presentation, discussion, and consideration of various concepts, options, and innovations associated with a strategy for Outer Planet exploration to encourage new ideas, including use of in-space propulsion, technical soundness, timeliness of science return, and science merit.
The Pluto/Kuiper Express mission will be the first mission to explore the Solar System's most distant planet and it's moon Charon, and go on to study smaller icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt, a vast region of space encircling the Sun beyond Pluto. The PKE mission will study the composition of the planet's surface and thin atmosphere.
The Europa Orbiter mission will probe the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa to determine whether there is in fact a liquid ocean beneath a deep icy crust. Recent evidence from NASA's Galileo mission suggest there may be water under the ice, perhaps at a distance of a few miles. If the existence of such an ocean can be proven, and if there are organic materials and a source of energy available under the surface, Europa could be a prime location to look for signs of life on future missions.
Recent Pluto reports from SpaceDaily
Announcement of Opportunity Available Dec. 26
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Pluto Needs An Express Decision
Cameron Park - Dec. 7, 2000
by Bruce Moomaw
Facing a deadline imposed by nature itself, NASA is said to be hearing the message from the planetary science community that due to no other reason that circumstance a mission to Pluto must launch in 2004 to reach the distant world by 2012 before its atmosphere freezes out as the planet moves far from the Sun on its highly elliptic 248-year orbit.
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