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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

So Far, Yet Now So Near

Tiny, neglected Pluto will get its close-up. Its importance goes beyond science, says the man who has dreamed for years of the mission.

May 29, 2003|Usha Lee McFarling | Times Staff Writer

BOULDER, Colo. — Cold. Dark. Forgotten. And so out of reach. Alan Stern has spent more than two decades dreaming about Pluto, certain that this most distant of planets, the only one in the solar system never explored, would soon be glimpsed by a set of robotic eyes sent from Earth.

"We thought this is a cinch. We'll have a Pluto mission in a few years," he recalled. That was 14 years ago. Stern was fresh out of graduate school and the outer solar system was just beginning to enthrall planetary scientists.

Now 45 and head of the space sciences department of the Southwest Research Institute here, Stern and a growing band of Plutophiles are still dreaming -- but only for a little while longer. Finally, the mission is about to happen.

In the epic adventures and tragedies of the last half a century of space exploration -- men on the moon, the first robotic lander on Mars, devastating accidents and spacecraft fly-bys that captured the first dramatic images of the bizarre ice worlds Neptune and Uranus -- little Pluto had been all but forgotten.

Many astronomers even wished to dethrone it from planethood because of its puny size and strange, tilted orbit -- calling it instead a comet, a trans-Neptunian object or simply a big piece of icy debris.

Only a handful of scientists remained dedicated to the lonely and unrewarding crusade to explore Pluto, a world so dim it can barely be seen, even by the powerful Hubble Space Telescope.

Compared to pondering space exotica like black holes or seeking traces of past life on neighboring Mars, distant Pluto can seem truly marginal. Sure, there are scientific questions at stake: Is Pluto volcanically active? Why is it so small when computer models simulating the formation of the solar system show it should be the size of Neptune? What can the frozen organic remnants of material that surround the planet tell us about the origin of our solar system and life here on Earth?

But to Stern, Pluto's pull stretches far beyond its scientific secrets.

Pluto is a boundary marking the uncharted reaches of the solar system -- the modern-day equivalent of the Spice Islands. We can go there, Stern said, so we should.

"This is going back to exploration, to the roots of the space program when everything was new and far away and mysterious," Stern said. "It's going over the next hill."

Since the 1990s, at least seven major NASA Pluto proposals have been scuttled. Some were seen as unworkable. Some would have taken too long. Others cost too much. The most recent blow came in 2000, when NASA canceled another long-planned trip to Pluto and its environs called the Pluto-Kuiper Express after costs spiraled out of control.

Then in 2001, a replacement mission called New Horizons was won by Stern's team in a competition that capped costs at $500 million. It too was stalled repeatedly by funding problems.

But an intrepid Pluto lobby determined to see the mission go forward seemed to rise from nowhere. It pelted Congress with pleas until the money was restored to the NASA budget -- twice. A blue ribbon panel of astronomers also weighed in, calling a mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt -- the ring of ancient debris and miniaturized planets orbiting the solar system -- a top science priority for the coming decade.

"It's been alive and dead more times than I can count. And I've only been on the project a few years," said Leslie Young, a mission scientist at the Southwest Research Institute.

Stern's team had taken to calling itself the "Undead." This spring, in a move that went little noticed amid the space shuttle Columbia tragedy, NASA gave Stern the final go-ahead for the Pluto mission. Because construction will soon be underway, there is little chance it will be canceled.

The New Horizons spacecraft will be built at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory near Baltimore. The space department there is led by Stamatios "Tom" Krimigis, who, in a 40-year career, has built and sent scientific devices to seven of the nine planets, probing the violent and invisible magnetic bubbles that surround many of them and the solar wind that sweeps past them. Despite office walls covered with awards and citations, a decision he made more than 20 years ago still nags him.

A Titanic Decision

It was 1980 and Voyager 1 had just flown past Saturn. If it went in one direction, the spacecraft could reach Pluto by 1986. But Krimigis and other project leaders decided to go after Saturn's moon, Titan, instead.

"At the time, I don't think anyone would have thought it would take this long to get to Pluto," Krimigis said.

The New Horizons mission is scheduled to launch in January 2006 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It will swing past Jupiter to pick up speed, shaving four years off the journey. With an average speed of 37,000 mph, New Horizons would then fly by Pluto in 2015 or 2016, depending on the type of rocket used for launch. Alan Stern will be approaching 60.

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