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Pluto mission team dedicates Science Operations Center to discoverer of Pluto

Boulder, Colorado -- February 6, 2002 -- On Monday, February 4, on what would have been the 96th birthday of Pluto's discoverer, Clyde W. Tombaugh, NASA's New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission team announced the dedication of its Science Operations Center in his honor.

"Henceforth, the New Horizons Science Operations Center will be known as the Tombaugh Science Operations Center, or TSOC," said Dr. Alan Stern, director of the Space Studies Department at Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI®) and principal investigator for New Horizons. The New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission is now in preliminary development for NASA. If approved and funded for construction later this year, it would launch in January 2006.

In March 1930 the astronomical community was stunned by the discovery of the ninth planet, Pluto. This discovery by Tombaugh, who at the time was at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., culminated a quarter-century-long search for a planet beyond Neptune. Pluto is the only planet discovered by an American. Tombaugh died in 1997 at age 90.

"Clyde Tombaugh is an astronomer's hero – a farm boy with sharp eyes and a keen mind whose persistence was rewarded with a major discovery," said Dr. Fran Bagenal of the University of Colorado, New Horizons co-investigator and lead scientist for the mission's Education and Public Outreach program.

Stern said that Tombaugh's planetary discovery was named Pluto on the suggestion of Venetia Burney, an English schoolgirl. "The amazing thing is that 72 years after Clyde's discovery, children still love Pluto. It's their favorite planet," said Stern.

The Tombaugh Science Operations Center, located in Boulder, will be responsible for generating scientific instrument observing plans, for data archiving and reduction, and for supporting scientific investigators using New Horizons data for the flyby of Jupiter in 2007, the flyby of Pluto and its moon Charon in 2016, and at Kuiper Belt Object flybys thereafter.

A TSOC dedication ceremony was held February 4 in Las Cruces, N.M., the home of Tombaugh's widow, Patsy, and their children, Annette Tombaugh-Sitze and Alden Tombaugh. Clyde Tombaugh was a professor at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces for more than 30 years. Mrs. Tombaugh accepted a plaque from Stern commemorating the dedication of the TSOC.

Pluto is the most distant known planet 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, necessary precursors of life on Earth. 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.

SwRI leads the New Horizons team, which also includes major partners at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.; Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.; Ball Aerospace Corp., Boulder; the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab will build the New Horizons spacecraft and operate it in flight. More information on the New Horizons mission can be found at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu.

For more information, contact Deborah Deffenbaugh, (210) 522-2046.

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SwRI is an independent, nonprofit, applied research and development organization based in San Antonio, Texas, with more than 2,800 employees and an annual research volume of more than $315 million.

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