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Pluto Mission May Be Early Victim Of Growing Budget Crisis

any probe to pluto will be an expensive operation

Florida - Jul 24, 2003
These questions of major cost - and possible safety risks - have stirred up a great deal of unease about the project in Congress. Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts proposed an amendment to the NASA budget that would pull $115 million out of this year's Prometheus budget and transfer it instead to the EPA's "Superfund" for cleanup of seriously polluted industrial sites. The amendment lost by a 309-114 landslide, but almost half of House Democrats voted for it.

And, during the Feb. 27 House Committee on Science hearing shortly after the Columbia tragedy, Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas (one of Congress' most conservative Democrats) and conservative Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California both complained about its cost. To quote Rohrabacher: "I noticed in the budget it's a $3 billion project. But that's only for the first five years, and it's not scheduled to go up for another 11 years. And I would wonder how much more money we're going to spend on that project."

They ended up voting for it this year; but Joseph Alexander, director of the National Research Council's Space Studies Board, says that as a result of America's current serious fiscal problems and the need to provide additional money to NASA to overcome the continuing very serious problems with its manned space program, Prometheus could well end up sucking most of the money out of NASA's other space science projects - even assuming that Congress actually is willing to continue the project over the next few years of rapidly growing budget deficits.

O'Keefe's own enthusiasm for JIMO seems to be largely a result of the combination of his earlier experience as Secretary of the Navy (during which he became a strong advocate of nuclear reactors) and his now-apparent serious lack of actual engineering and scientific knowledge on aerospace, which has led him to repeatedly make major and embarrassing mistakes during Congressional testimony - such as his 7-year overestimate of New Horizons' travel time to Pluto, and his testimony just a few days after the Columbia disaster that the detached foam fragment could not possibly have done damage to the Shuttle because it hit at "50 mph... about the speed of a picnic cooler lid blowing off a car ahead of you on the freeway." <<

For all these reasons, planetary scientists have serious doubts about JIMO and are vehemently opposed to the use of NEP for the first Pluto mission. Last summer's "Decadal Survey Report", which NASA itself commissioned from the National Academy of Sciences to recommend the best form for the Solar System exploration program through about 2013, was enthusiastic about the potential of NEP for Solar System missions after about 2015-20. But it was highly skeptical about using it for the nearer-future Europa orbiter. And the Committee listed a New Horizons-type mission to flyby Pluto, its moon Charon, and one or more smaller Kuiper Belt objects as by far the most important non-Mars mission to be initiated during this period, and added:

"This mission is ready now, has no requirements for new technology, and can use one of the few remaining RTGs. This is a multiple-object flyby mission designed as the first reconnaissance of a number of Kuiper-Belt objects including the largest and most well studied example, Pluto/Charon. It is premature to consider an orbiter for any of these objects. For this reason, and because of the low relative flyby velocities required and the requirement to reach Pluto at the earliest possible date, an NEP option with the necessary advanced ion engines is not appropriate. There is no confidence that both can be developed in time, nor are they necessary for this mission."

The Committee emphasized that Pluto - being a tiny world for which an orbiter would be much less scientifically productive than an orbiter mission to any of the giant planets and its system of moons - instead requires a flyby as early as possible:

"The science at Pluto and Charon is time-critical because of long-term seasonal changes in the surfaces and atmospheres of both bodies. The mandatory objectives of surface mapping and surface composition mapping of Pluto and Charon established by the Science Definition Team would be significantly compromised without an early mission. This is due to Pluto-Charon's ongoing approach to a steep solstice geometry that increasingly hides in shadow large expanses of polar terrain on each object (~200,000 square km of terrain will be lost to imaging and spectroscopic mapping on Pluto alone for each year of arrival delay between 2015 and 2025)...

"Concerning atmospheric science, Pluto's withdrawal from perihelion is widely anticipated to result in a substantial decline, if not a complete collapse, of its vapor pressure supported atmosphere. Searches for an atmosphere around Charon, an extremely desirable mission objective called out in the SDT report, will also be adversely affected, or wholly lost, as will be the opportunity to study atmospheric transfer between Pluto and Charon-something unique in the solar system as far as we know.

"Among the other atmospheric science that will be lost at Pluto if the atmosphere collapses or significantly declines before arrival will be the ability to:

  1. Test for hydrodynamic escape (a mandatory objective).
  2. Determine the base pressure and vertical haze/temperature structure of the atmosphere that has been under study since the 1980s (another mandatory objective).
  3. Pin down volatile transport rates (an extremely desirable objective).
  4. Sample the atmospheric chemistry and the production of organics and nitriles during its maximum pressure (i.e., perihelion) state (another mandatory objective)."

Regarding NEP, the Survey concludes: "The outer planet missions recommended for flight in this decade (e.g., the Kuiper Belt/Pluto Explorer) can be accomplished without NEP. The development of nuclear technologies, while clearly enabling for many planetary missions, will be controversial in its application and in the public mind. This new initiative was announced too late for the SSE Survey to assemble all of the required expertise and consider all the ramifications of the proposal. The fission-based technology will take a decade to develop in any case, so we have devised a flight program for the next decade that does not require it.

"In the meantime, the SSE Survey recommends that a series of independent studies be undertaken immediately to examine the scientific, technical, and public issues involved in the use of nuclear technologies on planetary spacecraft. A science study should be conducted to determine which mission types are enabled by nuclear technologies and which are not."

NASA's own Solar System Exploration Subcommitee reached a similar conclusion. And, in an open letter to the planetological community in Feb. 2002, outer Solar System experts William B. McKinnon and Jeff Moore were even more forceful:

"Beyond the waste of people's time and resources...there is THE TERRIBLE LOSS TO SCIENCE [emphasis theirs] entailed by waiting for years for new propulsion technologies.

"One does not need nuclear electric propulsion (NEP) to mount a Europa Orbiter mission, nor is there any compelling reason to do so...

"As for Pluto, there is no better time to launch than now, and there is no more economical mission than New Horizons. The whole mission concept has been competitively scrubbed and rescrubbed, and it won't get any cheaper than ~$500 million.

"Waiting for NEP will shorten the trip time and obviate the need for Jupiter, but the wait means less atmosphere to study, more area in permanent darkness, and simply allows Pluto-Charon to retreat farther and farther from scientific scrutiny. Pluto passed perihelion in 1989; it will never be so favorably situated for a long, long, time. And if we wait for NEP, we will surely incur much greater cost.

"Both missions to Pluto and Europa have been repeatedly vetted by the SSES and related advisory NASA structures. Both are strongly supported by the DPS community and Planetary Society members. In particular, no better and more economical first mission to Pluto-Charon and a Kuiper object can be imagined than New Horizons. In fact, it fits easily within the 'New Frontiers' $650 million cost cap."

If the House truly wants to cut NASA's space science budget, two courses of action suggest themselves as being better. The first is to delay the start of Project Prometheus and somewhat stretch out the current over-hasty plans for the development of nuclear-electric propulsion to a more sensible schedule.

The second is for Congress to drop its habit of bleeding off large amounts of funds from the requests by NASA and other federal scientific agencies to fund a seemingly endless parade of small earmarks which those agencies and the White House never even requested, as home-state pork for individual committee members. This Congressional habit has suddenly and massively grown in just the past few years, and is now rousing increasing complaints both from the White House and from scientists.

At any rate, if the House's sudden new attack on New Horizons - less than a year after adding $105 million to NASA's previous budget to start this project - isn't reversed, many scientists are going to be very angry, and US citizens in general may also take note of the huge waste of money.

Back to Part One
Earlier more detailed version of this report is also available

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Atlas V Chosen To Launch New Horizons Mission
Florida - Jul 24, 2003
NASA has chosen the Atlas V expendable launch vehicle provided by Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services, Inc. as the launch system for the proposed Pluto New Horizons mission. The mission is scheduled for launch to Pluto in January 2006.

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