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The Bizarre "Pluto War" Is Almost Over At Last, And Pluto Is Winning

New Horizons
by Bruce Moomaw
Los Angeles - Oct 09, 2002
On Tuesday, October 8, the House VA/HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds NASA, announced that it has now joined the Senate Appropriations Committee in adding $105 million to NASA's fiscal year 2003 budget for the "New Horizons" Pluto flyby mission. This would allow the craft to be launched in January 2006, with arrival at Pluto in mid-2015 or mid-2016 (depending on the launch vehicle finally chosen for it).

The Congressional committees have ordered NASA to name New Horizons as the first mission in its new series of "New Frontiers" Solar System missions to be initiated this year. The extra money would be added to the $15 million already requested by NASA and the White House to start that program, giving New Horizons all of the $120 million it needs this year.

Since New Horizons' projected total cost is only $490 million -- as compared to the $650 million cost limit allowed for any New Frontiers mission -- no more money will ever have to be added to NASA's budget in any later year to allow the mission. In fact, its funding during the 2004-06 fiscal years will be fully $393 million less than that planned for the New Frontiers Program as a whole, allowing a very substantial start next year on work for the second New Frontiers mission, which is thus likely to be launched in 2009.

Both full houses of Congress must still approve the work of their subcommittees, and other differences in their appropriations must be ironed out in House-Senate conferences -- but it's unlikely that the Pluto project will be removed in those negotiations. And, although both NASA's own administration and the Bush White House opposed New Horizons, it is also very unlikely that the President would veto the whole $95 billion in VA-HUD appropriations just to eliminate this mission.

Its one remaining serious stumbling block may be the NASA review board report, scheduled within the next few weeks, on the possible causes for the failure of the CONTOUR comet probe, which -- like New Horizons -- was run by the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of Maryland's Johns Hopkins University.

CONTOUR exploded in August during the firing of its STAR solid motor to boost it out of Earth orbit onto its comet flyby path, and the cause is still unknown -- and may be hard to determine, since it was out of radio contact at the time.

If the Board's report indicates that a freak flaw in the Thiokol STAR motor probably caused the failure, New Horizons will be unaffected. But if the Board reports a serious chance that serious negligence by APL in the design or testing of the CONTOUR spacecraft itself caused the failure, then it is possible that New Horizons could yet be cancelled soon even if initial funding has been approved for it -- especially since many of its onboard avionics systems (though not its body's physical structure) have been borrowed from CONTOUR.

But the odds, for the first time, are now very strongly in favor of the 2006 launch of New Horizons. The idea of a Pluto mission launched as early as possible, to beat the likely freezeout of Pluto's thin but scientifically important atmosphere in the next 15-20 years, has already triggered signs of widespread public approval. And New Horizons has been very strongly pushed from the start by Maryland's Barbara Mikulski, chairman of the Senate VA-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee.

But if Congress -- in its current remarkable move -- does indeed ram the 2006 Pluto mission through over the express objections of NASA and the White House, it will be mostly due to the overwhelming approval the mission receives from America's own planetary scientists. In July's "Decadal Survey" commissioned by NASA itself from the National Academy of Sciences to recommend the form of its Solar System program through 2013, New Horizons met with enthusiastic approval and was in fact the highest-ranked proposed new mission.

Additional details on the House Subcommittee's proposed changes in the White House's budget for NASA are still very sketchy -- but it did recommend a total $300 million increase for NASA (as opposed to the Senate committee's increase of only $200 million). It is known that both committees agreed to make no changes in the White House's recommended funding for Space Shuttle operations, although the same may not be true for the International Space Station.

It is also reported by the "NASA Watch" website that the House committee (though not the Senate one) favors canceling NASA's proposed $11.2 million new start of the "Generations" space biology program, which would determine the effects of weightlessness and space radiation on the genetic development and evolution of Earth organisms, using both Space Station experiments and a series of smaller unmanned satellites carrying human tissue samples, microorganisms, and insects into the stronger parts of Earth's radiation belts and eventually into deep space. This will have to be settled during the House-Senate conference.

Finally, the House subcommittee favors one additional important new chunk of Solar System exploration funding not recommended either by NASA or by the Senate committee -- $40 million for continued work on the design and development of a Europa Orbiter mission. This would probe Jupiter's icy moon using radar and other techniques to confirm that it has a subsurface ocean beneath its icy crust that may be capable of harboring life, and to locate good landing spots for later Europa landers to study the biology question more directly.

This mission is difficult, and the White House canceled preliminary work on it this year because its estimated cost has ballooned to about a billion dollars. However, the Solar System Decadal Survey report recommends it for launch before 2013 (under the name "Europa Geophysical Explorer"), and in fact favors enlarging it somewhat to include instruments to analyze and map the other substances mixed in with Europa's surface ice, given their possible biological importance.

It doesn't fit into the $650 million cost limit for a New Frontiers mission. NASA is scheduled to submit its first "Announcement of Opportunity" (AO) for the New Frontiers program later this year, which will give competitive teams of scientists and aerospace corporations the chance to submit designs for two or three of the top five New Frontiers mission types recommended by the Decadal Survey -- with only a single proposal for one mission type being chosen for flight.

The most top-rated of those five mission types is a Pluto/Kuiper Belt flyby -- so, if New Horizons is about to be chosen as the first New Frontiers mission, candidates for the coming AO will be limited to the other four mission types. Listed in order of scientific priority by the Decadal Survey, they are:

  1. A mission to return samples from the great "South Pole/Aitken Basin" on the Moon's farside.
  2. A mission to parachute three entry probes into different parts of Jupiter's atmosphere for measurements down to pressure levels of 100 bars, much deeper than the Galileo entry probe - after which the carrier spacecraft would put itself into a polar orbit around Jupiter and use relatively simple instruments (not including cameras) to study the planet's internal structure, magnetic field and deep atmospheric composition.
  3. A "Venus In-Situ Explorer" to land on the planet, grab a surface sample, and then inflate a heat-resistant balloon and loft itself back into the cool cloud layer to analyze the sample in leisurely detail, as well as studying Venus' atmospheric composition and weather patterns.
  4. A mission to land briefly on a comet nucleus, scoop up a kilogram or so of material, and return it to Earth at temperatures low enough to keep its water ice from freezing (although lower-temperature ices in it would be allowed to vaporize, with the resultant gases being preserved inside the sample container).

It's impossible to say which of these will actually be chosen by NASA to make the cut for the first New Frontiers AO -- especially since JPL's expert on Jupiter missions Thomas Spilker thinks that the entry probe and orbiter parts of the Jupiter mission may well have to be split into two separate spacecraft.

But the Europa Orbiter, despite its high cost, was separately recommended by the Decadal Survey for launch before 2013, and the House committee agrees. NASA has recently said that it opposes even asking for any possible revolutionary low-cost designs for this mission that might fit in with the $650 million New Frontiers cost limit until 2005-08 -- but if Congress as a whole ends up agreeing with the House subcommittee, it can't be ruled out that Congress next year might end up ordering NASA to fly the Europa Orbiter as the second New Frontiers mission, with the acceptable cost limit raised for this one mission. (After all, even if it runs at close to a billion dollars, the combined cost for it and New Horizons would be only moderately over the cost for two regular New Frontiers missions.)

At any rate, the odds for an early mission to Pluto -- which over the past few years has time and again been rejected by NASA, and time and again been resurrected by outside forces because the mission makes excellent scientifc sense -- are now very good. Its final fate will be decided within the next month or two.

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Another Candidate For Planet X Found Beyond Pluto
Birmingham - Oct 07, 2002
Planetary scientists at the California Institute of Technology have found a spherical body in the outskirts of our solar system. The object has been named Quaoar (KWAH-o-ar) after the creation force of the Tongva tribe who were the original inhabitants of the Los Angeles basin, where the Caltech campus is located. The object circles the sun every 288 years, is half the size of Pluto, and is larger than all of the known objects in the asteroid belt combined.

Something Wonderful
Colorado - Oct 6 2002
In the short decade of discovery between the detection of the first Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) and today's announcement of the behemoth KBO Quaoar, the Kuiper Belt has delivered a series of discoveries so profound that its exploration was recently ranked as the top priority of the National Research Council's recent Decadal Survey outlining goals for solar system exploration.

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