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SwRI proposal for Pluto mission selected by NASA

Boulder, Colorado -- June 13, 2001 -- NASA has selected a proposal by Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI®) to examine the feasibility of a mission to Pluto, the last unexplored planet in the solar system. One of two proposals determined by NASA to have the best science value among five submitted, the two finalists are being considered for complete missions, including science payload, spacecraft, and launch vehicle.

"This mission is exploration at its greatest," says Dr. Alan Stern, principal investigator in the Space Studies Department of the SwRI Space Science and Engineering Division. "We couldn't be more excited about showing how feasible, affordable, and scientifically significant a Pluto mission can be."

NASA selected the two proposals despite a fiscal year 2002 budget that lacks development funding for such a mission. Even so, Congress has asked NASA not to preclude the ability to develop a Pluto-Kuiper Belt (PKB) mission until lawmakers could consider it in the context of the 2002 budget.

"The PKB mission represents a possible opportunity to visit the only planet not yet explored by spacecraft," says 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."

SwRI's proposed mission, "New Horizons: Shedding Light on Frontier Worlds," will be led by Stern of the SwRI Boulder office in cooperation with Ball Aerospace Corp., Stanford University, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), and an array of planetary scientists. Principal Investigator Stern is an expert in the study of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.

NASA also selected the "Pluto and Outer Solar System Explorer (POSSE)" mission proposal with Dr. Larry Esposito of the University of Colorado, Boulder, as principal investigator. The proposal team includes APL, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Malin Space Science Systems, Inc., Ball Aerospace Corp., and the University of California, Berkeley.

Each team will receive $450,000 to conduct a three-month concept study, after which NASA will thoroughly evaluate the program content and technical, schedule, and cost feasibilities of both proposals. Both teams 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.

The proposals include a remote sensing package containing imaging instruments, a radio science investigation, and other experiments to characterize the global geology and morphology of Pluto and its giant moon Charon, to map their surface composition, and to characterize Pluto's neutral atmosphere and the atmospheric escape rate. The proposed spacecraft would then fly on to examine an even more distant target in the Kuiper Belt.

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 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. 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.

Should NASA select one of these PKB missions for development, it would follow the management philosophy of NASA's Discovery Program with a principal investigator–led team representing academia, industry, NASA centers, and other communities. Launch would be expected sometime in the 2004–2006 time frame, with the spacecraft arriving at Pluto before 2020.

For more information contact Maria Stothoff, Communications Department, Southwest Research Institute, P.O. Drawer 28510, San Antonio, Texas 78228-0510, Phone (210) 522-3305, Fax (210) 522-3547.

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