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Panel Revives Pluto Mission's Hope for Liftoff

October 09, 2002|USHA LEE McFARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A mission to Pluto that has been canceled twice and was not funded in this year's NASA budget appears to be set for liftoff again after a House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA funding approved spending $105 million to keep the mission alive.

Although the funding still must be approved by the full Appropriations Committee before going to the House floor, the decision has leaders of the Pluto trip confident that their spacecraft will fly.

"We are delighted," said Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., who is leading the team now developing the $500-million New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt spacecraft for a 2006 launch to the solar system's smallest and most remote planet.

Interest in Pluto and its neighborhood--the icy Kuiper Belt--received an additional boost Monday with two Caltech astronomers' discovery of Quaoar, a neighboring planet-like object half the size of Pluto.

The Kuiper Belt, which contains what Stern calls the solar system's "ancient wilderness," contains the primitive remnants from which our solar system formed and may contain objects even larger than Pluto, which is 1,400 miles in diameter.

In July, a leading panel of astronomers called two missions that had been canceled by NASA--one to explore the Kuiper Belt and another to explore the ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa--two of the the agency's most important voyages.

The House Appropriations subcommittee agreed.

The Senate Appropriations panel already has approved similar funding for the Pluto mission. The House subcommittee also joined the Senate panel in adding $40 million to begin work on a mission to Europa. In all, both panels approved a $300-million increase of the NASA budget over President Bush's initial request, bringing the total to $15.3 billion.

The mission to Pluto, which Stern has taken to calling "the undead," has developed a huge following among schoolchildren and space buffs everywhere. News of its repeated cancellation has prompted emotional outcries and massive letter-writing campaigns to try to revive it.

Officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have said several technical hurdles must be overcome before a trip is launched, but they are exploring ways to complete the 3-billion-mile trip by 2020.

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