NASA selects APL's Pluto mission proposal for further study

June 09, 2001

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., wants to know more about Pluto -- the last unexplored planet in the solar system -- and it's now one step closer to getting that chance. NASA has selected a Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission on which APL is a major team player for a more detailed study to determine the feasibility of a future mission to that planet.

"We couldn't be happier," says Dr. Stamatios "Tom" Krimigis, head of APL's Space Department, after the announcement was made. "Our proposed mission gives the scientific world an excellent opportunity to study Pluto before its atmosphere freezes. We're really looking forward to working with Southwest Research Institute and the rest of this excellent team to fully develop our plan."

The selection is the first step of a potential two-step process. NASA officials note the president's fiscal 2002 budget request does not contain development funding for a Pluto mission, but Congress has asked NASA not do anything to preclude the ability to develop a Pluto-Kuiper Belt (PKB) mission until lawmakers could consider it in the context of the FY 2002 budget. If funding is provided in the fiscal 2002 budget NASA could select one of the proposals for development. If a PKB mission were developed, launch would be in the 2004-2006 time frame and the spacecraft would arrive at Pluto before 2020.

"The PKB mission represents a possible opportunity to visit the only planet not yet explored by spacecraft," said Dr. Colleen Hartman, Pluto Program Director in NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. "It's really an opportunity to, in a sense, look into a deep-freeze of history which could tell us how our solar system evolved to what it is today, including the precursor ingredients of life."

The Applied Physics Laboratory would manage the "New Horizons: Shedding Light on Frontier Worlds" mission, which Principal Investigator Dr. S. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., would lead. The proposed mission team also includes Ball Aerospace Corp., Boulder; Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

The other proposal is the Pluto and Outer Solar System Explorer (POSSE). Dr. Larry Esposito, principal investigator from the University of Colorado, Boulder, would lead a team including JPL, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver; Malin Space Science Systems, Inc., San Diego; Ball Aerospace Corp., Boulder; and University of California, Berkeley.

Each team will receive $450,000 to conduct a three-month concept study. At the end of the three months, NASA will thoroughly evaluate program content and technical, schedule and cost feasibilities of both proposals to determine if either is selectable.

The two proposals were judged to have the best science value among the five submitted to NASA in April 2001 in response to the Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission Announcement of Opportunity. Each selected proposal team will work with the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters to finalize the design of the spacecraft and its accommodation of the instrument sets.

Both proposals are for complete missions, including launch vehicle, spacecraft and science instrument payload. Each proposal includes a remote sensing package that includes imaging instruments, a radio science investigation, and other experiments to characterize the global geology and morphology of Pluto and its moon, Charon, map their surface composition, and characterize Pluto's neutral atmosphere and its escape rate.

Pluto is not a rocky planet like Earth, Mars, Mercury or Venus, nor a gas giant like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus or Neptune. It is a Kuiper Belt Object, a class of objects composed of material left over after the formation of the other planets, which has never been exposed to the higher temperatures and solar radiation levels of the inner solar system. It is known that Pluto has large quantities of ices of nitrogen, and simple molecules containing combinations of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen that are the necessary precursors of life. These ices would be largely lost to space if Pluto had come close to the sun. Instead they remain on Pluto as a representative sample of the primordial material that set the stage for the evolution of the solar system as it exists today, including life.

Any PKB mission will be developed following the management philosophy of NASA's Discovery Program including a principal investigator-led team of representation from academia, industry, NASA centers and other communities. The Applied Physics Laboratory currently manages two Discovery class missions -- the Comet Nucleus Tour (CONTOUR) comet study and MESSENGER, scheduled to be the first spacecraft to orbit the planet Mercury. APL also managed the highly successful Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), the first launch in the Discovery program and the first mission to orbit and land on an asteroid.
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The Applied Physics Laboratory, a division of The Johns Hopkins University, uses innovative science and technology to solve complex problems that present critical challenges to the nation. For more information, visit www.jhuapl.edu.

Johns Hopkins University

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