The U.S. House and Senate conference committee acting on the fiscal year 2002 NASA appropriations have approved $30 million funding for development of the Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission, despite opposition by the Bush Administration. They specifically directed that "funds provided should be used to initiate appropriate spacecraft and science instrument development as well as launch vehicle procurement," and that NASA proceed with selection of a team to develop the mission.
"This is a victory for public interest," said Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society. "The people let Congress know that they want NASA to explore Pluto -- the only remaining unexplored planet in our solar system -- and Congress responded."
The Society has been leading a grass-roots effort to convince Congress to restore the mission to the NASA budget after the Bush Administration proposed eliminating it.
"The strong support for space exploration in the Congress is very welcome, especially at a time when there are so many other budget pressures," Friedman added. He praised the House and Senate conferees noting that they also restored full funding to the Mars program which had been threatened with budget cuts.
If Congress had not restored the funding, the opportunity for reaching the last unvisited planet in our solar system would have been lost for a generation. Additionally, the chance of seeing its atmosphere before it froze and condensed would have been lost for more than a century.
The funding, and launch vehicle constraints, probably mean that the mission to Pluto cannot launch until 2006 -- two years later than had been hoped. 2006 is the last launch opportunity for more than a decade to utilize a Jupiter gravity assist -- where the spacecraft would get a boost from Jupiter -- to reach Pluto. Mission times, depending on the launch vehicle selected, will be from 10-12 years.
The Administration is now faced with the choice of putting Pluto in its proposed fiscal year 2003 budget, or risking another fight with Congress next year. The Pluto mission was placed by Congress in the Outer Planets line item, which also includes a Europa orbiter mission. The Europa mission would be launched later than a Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission, but arrive earlier at its destination.
Pluto Campaign Page at Planetary Society
Original PKE Mission Site at NASA
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Scientists and Engineers Complete NASA-Funded Phase A Study Of Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission
Boulder - September 27, 2001
A team led by the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU APL) has just completed a NASA-funded, "Phase A" design study for a Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission.
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