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The Kuipers Beckon As Pluto Mission Funded

And Pluto and the Kuipers makes it a solar system wide wrap.
by Bruce Moomaw
Sacramento - Mar 03, 2003
After years of uncertainty, the strange "Pluto War" over whether to launch a Pluto flyby spacecraft in the near future is finally almost completely over -- and Pluto won.

We'll get to that "almost" part in a moment. But right now, the January 2006 launch of the "New Horizons" spacecraft designed by the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University -- which both NASA Headquarters and the Bush White House strongly opposed as recently as late last year -- now seems a near-certainty.

The reason is simply that the scientific case for it was so strong that last summer the planetary science community united virtually unanimously behind it -- forcefully rejecting any attempts by the new NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe to replace it with a vehicle which would be launched too late to re-accelerate itself toward Pluto with a gravity-assist flyby of Jupiter, and would instead have to use a large and expensive ion drive powered either by big solar arrays or by a small and hard-to-develop nuclear reactor.

The case for the non-ion drive "New Horizons" probe was simply too strong and made too much sense. Last fall, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees tentatively added $105 million for this mission to NASA's FY 2003 budget -- which, along with the $15 million already favored by Bush to begin the "New Frontiers" series of medium-cost Solar System probes, would be enough to initiate the project for a 2006 launch.

Then suddenly still another stumbling block appeared -- the unexpected GOP takeover of the Senate, combined with the White House's new insistence on major new cuts in the federal budget.

Since Congress had been unable to finalize the country's FY 2003 budget before the end of last year, this raised the strong possibility that the White House might very well impose a last-second re-cancellation of the FY 2003 funding for New Horizons.

The initial design studies of the spacecraft indicated that it could be made 24 kg lighter than expected. This, in turn, would have made it possible -- if worst came to worst -- for New Horizons to be launched directly to Pluto in February 2007, without either a Jupiter flyby OR an ion drive. Thus, it could be possible to delay its launch for a year -- as the White House and NASA originally wanted -- and still send it to Pluto.

But a 2007 launch would definitely have been inferior scientifically. It would have arrived at Pluto four or five years later than a 2006 launch with a Jupiter flyby -- at about the final deadline set by NASA to be reasonably certain of arriving before the planet's atmosphere freezes out as it moves farther away from the Sun on its elliptical orbit.

This would also be at a time when more and more of the planet's south polar region will be shrouded in continual darkness for the next two centuries because of its extreme axial tilt combined with its motion around the Sun, and thus cannot be photographed.

And the longer flight would also add to the probe's operating cost, reduce its reliability, and lead to greater decay of its plutonium power source before arrival at Pluto -- probably forcing it to observe the planet with only one scientific instrument at a time, instead of several instruments simultaneously.

Nevertheless, as late as mid-January the new odds still seemed to be against its approval for 2006 -- especially after the Senate decided to provide additional funding to several popular domestic programs by making an additional "across the board" percentage cut in the budgets of other agencies, including NASA.

However, the final House-Senate conference to resolve the budgets then favored by the two bodies produced an astonishing result on Feb. 12. In 2002, the Senate had favored a hike of $200 million in the Science, Astronautics and Technology ("SAT") division of NASA's budget over Bush's FY 03 request, while the House had favored a $300 million hike.

But, instead of actually cutting several hundred million dollars out of NASA's budget as expected, the two houses ended up "compromising" on a final spending figure considerably higher than either had previously backed, at the same time that they made major cuts many other branches of the federal government!

They finally ended up increasing spending on the SAT division by over $363 million. (They also increased FY 03 spending on the "Human Spaceflight" division of NASA by $50 million over Bush's original request, largely to cover the investigation of the Columbia disaster.)

  • Click for Part Two: Pork For All

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    Do Pluto's Other Children Hide In The Shadow Of Charon
    Boulder - Feb 25, 2003
    Pluto has only one known satellite - Charon - discovered in 1978 by American astronomer James Christy. At slightly more than half the diameter of Pluto, Charon's 1,200-kilometer diameter makes it the undisputed "relative size" king of solar system satellites.

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