NASA has selected a team led by the Applied Physics Laboratory and Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, to develop the first mission to explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt region beyond the distant planet.
The New Horizons: Shedding Light on Frontier Worlds mission team, headed by principal investigator S. Alan Stern of SwRI, also includes Ball Aerospace of Boulder, Colo., Stanford University, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and a variety of other universities and research institutions. Thomas Coughlin is the project manager at APL, which will manage the mission for NASA and design, build and operate the New Horizons spacecraft. SwRI will lead the science team and guide development of the spacecraft's scientific instruments. Ball Aerospace and NASA Goddard will help develop the payload.
Aiming for a 2006 launch and arrival at Pluto before 2020, NASA officials say the mission must pass a confirmation review that will address significant risks such as schedule and technical milestones and regulatory approval for launch of the mission's nuclear power source. Funding also must be available; Congress provided $30 million in fiscal 2002 for the mission to procure a launch vehicle and start developing the spacecraft and science instruments, but no funding for subsequent years is included in the administration's budget plan.
Pluto is the most remote planet in the solar system; its elliptical orbit has an average distance of 3.66 billion miles from the sun--nearly 40 times the distance between Earth and the sun. The Kuiper Belt is a source of comets and is believed to be the source of much of Earth's water and the simple chemical precursors of life.
"We'll explore frontier worlds near the edge of the planetary system," says Stern, who is also the director of SwRI's Department of Space Studies, Boulder. "This mission is likely to rewrite textbooks regarding the origins of the planets, the nature of the outer solar system and even the origin of primitive materials that may have played a role in the development of life."
NASA will work with Stern to further define mission costs and to finalize the design of the spacecraft and its accommodation of the instrument sets. New Horizons is planned for launch in January 2006 and, depending on the launch vehicle selected, would reach Pluto and its moon, Charon, in July of 2016 or 2018. On the way, the small lightweight craft would pass Jupiter, using the giant planet's gravity as a slingshot toward Pluto and exploring the Jovian system.
The spacecraft team plans to use several proven subsystems designed for other APL planetary missions, saving money while reducing risk and shortening the project's development schedule. New Horizons' remote-sensing instruments will characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures, and examine Pluto's atmosphere in detail. Encounters with Kuiper Belt objects will occur after the Pluto-Charon flyby.
"The Kuiper Belt is an archaeological dig into the early history of our solar system," says Andrew Cheng, New Horizons project scientist at APL. "It's full of small, icy, dirty and rocky objects that started to build into planets but for some mysterious reason stopped in midstride. It's a fascinating region."
Following the successful management model of NASA's Discovery Program, New Horizons is a principal investigator- led team representing academia, industry, NASA centers and other communities. In addition to Stern, Coughlin and Cheng, the management team includes mission director Robert Farquhar of APL and science payload manager William Gibson of SwRI. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., will provide navigation support, and tracking and communication services through NASA's Deep Space Network.
"Leading the first mission to Pluto is an exciting opportunity for the Applied Physics Laboratory," says Richard Roca, APL director. "We promise a rewarding mission for NASA and for avid space science supporters, such as Sen. Barbara Mikulski and the Maryland delegation, who have done so much to advance science and technology in the state."
New Horizons is the latest of several NASA projects on APL's roster. The Lab manages CONTOUR, which launches in July 2002 to study at least two diverse comets, and MESSENGER, set to become the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury after launching in March 2004. APL also managed the NEAR mission, which included the first spacecraft to orbit and land on an asteroid, and recently secured a 12-year $600 million contract for missions in NASA's Sun-Earth Connection program.
For more information on the Pluto study, go to the New Horizons Web site at pluto.jhuapl.edu/.