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The bizarre "Pluto War" is almost over at last, and Pluto is winning.

New Horizons

Los Angeles - Oct 09, 2002
On Tuesday, October 8, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies (including NASA) announced in a press release that it favors providing an additional $105 million next year to fund development of the "New Horizons" mission that will flyby Pluto mid next decade.

Funding for the mission to be launched in 2006 has already been approved by the full Senate Appropriations Committee. In addition, Congress has directed NASA to nominate New Horizons as the first mission in its new series of "New Frontiers" Solar System missions to be initiated this year.

The extra $105 million will be added to the $15 million already requested by NASA and the White House to initiate that program, providing New Horizons with $120 million it in the next funding cycle.

Since New Horizons' projected total cost is $490 million - as compared to the $650 million cost limit allowed for any New Frontiers mission - no funds will need to be added to NASA's budget in any later year to allow the mission.

In fact, its funding in Fiscal Years 2004-06 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 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 is unlikely that the Pluto project will be removed in any such negotiations. 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 VA-HUD appropriations merely to eliminate this mission.

The one remaining stumbling block may be the NASA review board report, scheduled within the next few weeks, on the possible causes for the August failure of the CONTOUR multiple-comet flyby probe.

CONTOUR exploded during the firing of its STAR solid kick motor to boost it out of elongated Earth orbit onto its comet flyby path, and the cause is still unknown - and may be hard to determine, given the fact that 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 ground testing of the CONTOUR spacecraft itself caused the failure, then it is possible that New Horizons could yet be cancelled, even if initial funding has been approved for it - especially since many of its onboard avionics systems (though not its main 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 won widespread public approval. Moreover, New Horizons - which will be managed by the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of Johns Hopkins University in Maryland - has been strongly supported from the start by Senate VA-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee chairman Barbara Mikulski, of the same state.

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 - which would make close flybys of not just Pluto and its moon Charon, but as many as three other smaller Kuiper Belt objects - 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 $300 million increase (as opposed to the Senate Subcommittee's increase of only $200 million). It is known that both subcommittees 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 subcommittee - namely $40 million for continued work on the design and development of a "Europa Orbiter" mission to probe Jupiter's ice moon using radar and other techniques to confirm that it has a subsurface ocean beneath its icy crust which 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 recommends 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. However, it doesn't fit into the $650 million cost limit for a New Frontiers mission.

Meanwhile, NASA is scheduled to submit its first "Announcement of Opportunity" (AO) for the New Frontiers program later this year, giving competitive teams of scientists and aerospace corporations the chance to submit proposed designs for two or three of the top five New Frontiers mission types recommended by the Decadal Survey - with only one proposal for one type of mission being chosen for flight.

The 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 recommended separately by the Decadal Survey for launch before 2013, and the House committee agrees.

NASA has recently said that it leans against 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 committee, 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 scientific sense - are now very good. Its final fate will be decided within the next month or two.

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Pluto Is Undergoing Global Warming
Birmingham - Oct 09, 2002
Pluto is undergoing global warming, as evidenced by a three-fold increase in the planet's atmospheric pressure during the past 14 years, a team of astronomers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Williams College, the University of Hawaii, Lowell Observatory and Cornell University announced in a press conference today at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society's (AAS) Division for Planetary Sciences in Birmingham, Ala.

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