Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI®) News

Printer Friendly Version

SwRI awarded program to begin development of the first spacecraft to Pluto-Charon and the Kuiper Belt

For immediate release

San Antonio -- November 30, 2001 -- After a two-month evaluation, NASA has selected the "New Horizons" proposal, led by Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI®), to proceed with preliminary design studies for a mission to the Pluto-Kuiper Belt (PKB) system. The mission, including science payload, spacecraft, and launch vehicle, will examine the last unexplored planet in the solar system and move beyond Pluto to explore multiple objects in the Kuiper Belt. The mission will also make the next planned exploration of Jupiter and its moons.

Led by Principal Investigator Dr. S. Alan Stern, director of the SwRI Department of Space Studies, the winning proposal involves constructing and flying a complete mission, including development of the spacecraft, trajectory, science instruments, and an education and public outreach plan.

"We'll be exploring frontier worlds near the edge of the planetary system," says Stern, who is based in the SwRI Boulder, Colo., office. "This mission is likely to rewrite textbooks regarding the origin 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."

SwRI leads the New Horizons team, which also includes major partners at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory of Laurel, Md.; Stanford University of Palo Alto, Calif.; Ball Aerospace Corp. of Boulder, Colo.; the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center of Greenbelt, Md.; and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Pasadena, Calif.

During the New Horizons feasibility study that occurred this summer, the team designed a spacecraft equipped with sensitive, miniaturized cameras, a radio science instrument, ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers, and space plasma experiments. The team believes this combination of science instruments is ideal to characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and its moon Charon, to map their surface compositions, and to characterize Pluto's atmosphere and its atmospheric escape rate. The feasibility study also showed the mission could save money using technologies for deep space exploration that are essentially off the shelf.

Congress has approved $30 million of fiscal year 2002 funds to conduct final design work of the spacecraft and science instruments and to contract the launch vehicle. For the mission to continue beyond 2002, the program must meet two conditions set by NASA. First, the team must pass a NASA-led "confirmation review" of its work. Second, Congress must approve additional funding.

"We couldn't be more pleased to be leading this pioneering space mission," says Dr. James L. Burch, vice president of the SwRI Space Science and Engineering Division. "We are happy to have such quality institutions participating on this mission and are confident of its success."

Pluto is the most distant planet known and the largest member of the Kuiper Belt. Kuiper Belt Objects -- a class of objects composed of material believed to have been left over after the formation of the other planets -- have never been exposed to the higher temperatures and solar radiation levels of the inner solar system. 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. The gases comprising these ices would be largely lost to space if Pluto had come close to the sun. Instead they remain on Pluto as a sample of the primordial material that set the stage for the evolution of the solar system as it exists today -- including life.

With additional funding, the launch of New Horizons is expected to occur in January 2006, with the spacecraft arriving at Pluto between 2014 and 2018, depending on the selection of the launch vehicle. Along the way to Pluto, New Horizons will capitalize on a gravitational boost from Jupiter.

For more information, contact Maria Stothoff at (210) 522-3505 or fax at (210) 522-3547.

SwRI News separate.gif (834 bytes) SwRI Home