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. Congress Set To Defy White House Over Pluto Probe

There's a virtually unique scientific deadline in exploring Pluto which exists for no other scientific target of NASA: it is now moving away from the Sun in its elliptical orbit, and it's highly likely that its thin but scientifically important atmosphere will freeze out onto its surface within the next 15-20 years, and stay frozen until Pluto approaches perihelion over two centuries from now.

Los Angeles - May 2, 2002
The seemingly endless seesaw struggle over whether to launch a flyby probe to Pluto may be nearing a dramatic conclusion as Congress seeks to defy the Bush Administration and its recently appointed NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, who opposes any further funding of a Pluto probe this decade.

Under the Bush Administration's Fiscal Year 2003 NASA budget, there will be no funding of a Pluto mission until a revolutionary new nuclear-powered ion drive is developed over the next decade or two.

However, Washington sources have confirmed reports first published by NASA Watch that both parties in Congress are teetering on the brink of defying the White House and funding $120 million to begin development of the "New Horizons" Pluto probe that was selected as a workable design by NASA. Under its current plans, this probe would be launched in January 2006 in time to utilize a gravity-assist flyby of Jupiter before reaching Pluto in mid-2015.

If so, a virtual army of recommendations from various scientists and scientific groups is likely to be responsible. Editorials in "Nature", "Aviation Week", "Scientific American" and "Astronomy" magazine have all urgently recommended this move, as has the Planetary Society. Moreover, NASA's own Solar System Exploration Subcommittee (SSES), in its latest bimonthly official recommendations to NASA on the best scientific strategy for near-future planetary exploration, backs a Pluto probe this decade.

And it seems very likely that the "Decadal Survey Committee" NASA set up to do a year-long study of the agency's optimal Solar System strategy will follow suit when its final report is issued in September. A poll of members by the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society - the preeminent national organization of planetary scientists, whose input is vitally important to the Committee - expressed overwhelming support for the 2006 Pluto mission as the most important next Solar System exploration initiative by NASA.

The reasons are multiple. First, there's a virtually unique scientific deadline in exploring Pluto which exists for no other scientific target of NASA: it is now moving away from the Sun in its elliptical orbit, and it's highly likely that its thin but scientifically important atmosphere will freeze out onto its surface within the next 15-20 years, and stay frozen until Pluto approaches perihelion over two centuries from now.

Moreover, Pluto, whose spin axis is "tipped over on its side" by fully 60 degrees, is now also by chance in one of the two positions in its 248-year orbit where it is almost "side-on" toward the Sun - but it is steadily moving away from that point, and a larger and larger area around its south pole is thus being continually tilted away from the Sun and shrouded in permanent darkness, preventing the surface there from being photographed for another 125 years.

Thus it's scientifically urgent for New Horizons to get to Pluto as fast as possible - but if the 2006 launch window is missed, Jupiter won't again be in position to provide a gravity assist to the probe until 2013. Whether Jupiter assist or nuclear-electric propulsion ("NEP") is used, the probe's arrival at Pluto would thus be delayed until the atmosphere has probably frozen out.

Meanwhile, new NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, who has no engineering background, has repeatedly stated that the use of NEP would get a probe to Pluto almost as quickly. But this is simply not true, as virtually every aerospace engineer asked has pointed out.

A second reason is fiscal - for the current plan by the White House and NASA's leadership to use NEP for any Pluto mission launched would also hike the cost of such a mission by about $150 million over the estimated $490 million cost of New Horizons.

This is made doubly important by the fact that "New Frontiers", NASA's new intended program for all outer Solar System missions, has a cost cap of $650 million for each mission.

While a nuclear-powered Pluto probe could probably slip in under the cap, virtually all of the other outer Solar System missions considered most urgent by planetary scientists - such as a Europa orbiter, a Titan lander, and a mission to return an intact sample from the surface of a comet nucleus - are almost certainly too expensive to be flown in the program as it now exists, and so the Solar System Exploration Subcommittee has also urgently recommended that New Frontiers' cost cap be relaxed to allow some more expensive missions at longer intervals.

Obviously saving the program $150 million might by itself allow one of the more expensive missions to be flown - with the Europa Orbiter generally regarded as the most urgent one.

The logical course is to make New Horizons, in its current $490 million form, the first New Frontiers mission. The problem with this is that NASA's current funding-increase profile for New Frontiers (which calls for the first mission in 2007) doesn't provide nearly enough money in FY 2003 to fund the New Horizons mission enough to get it off the ground at the 2006 opportunity.

However, in following years, New Frontiers' currently planned budget would cover the New Horizons Pluto mission easily, with enough left over to fund a more expensive second mission -- with the additional options of either accelerating the launch of a second New Frontiers mission by one or two years, or using the money for other purposes.

As mentioned, sources have indicated that Congress is now about to cover that 2003 funding shortfall, presumably by either increasing NASA's total budget or pulling money out of other NASA programs. The SSES report, however, also urged that such additional New Horizons funding should not be drained out of any of NASA's other space science programs.

Exactly what Congress is planning to do (if it does anything) will become known soon enough. It may be part of a bigger and more dramatic Congressional rebellion against the White House's space spending plans, given many Congressmen's expressions of intense skepticism during recent hearings about O'Keefe's plan to continue the International Space Station over the next few years with only enough money to support a continual three-man crew, who will have almost no time left over for any scientific experiments, or for any activity other than simply maintaining the Station.

There's a growing feeling that the final moment of crisis and decision has arrived for the Station, and that this year Congress may either order a large increase in Station funding to allow the quick establishment of its originally planned six or seven-person crew that would be able to carry out experiments, or simply cut bait and cancel the Station completely in its half-completed state. If so, the fight over Pluto will be only a sideshow - or a side effect - of the coming revolution in the future of NASA.

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Pluto Mission Planners Continue Development Of OuterPlanets Explorer
San Antonio - Apr 18, 2002
Now almost halfway through its NASA-funded Phase B development effort, the New Horizons project is making significant progress as it approaches its first major review.

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