Southwest Research Institute and APL to Lead ‘New Horizons’ Study of Distant Planets

NASA has selected a team
led by The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel,
MD, and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, TX, to develop the
first mission to explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt region beyond the distant

Headed by Principal Investigator
Dr. S. Alan Stern of SwRI, the New Horizons: Shedding Light on Frontier Worlds
mission team also includes Ball Aerospace, Boulder, CO; Stanford University,
Palo Alto, CA; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD; and a variety
of other universities and research institutions. Thomas Coughlin is the project
manager at APL, which will manage the mission for NASA and design, build and
operate the New Horizons spacecraft. SwRI will lead the science team
and guide development of the spacecraft’s scientific instruments. Ball Aerospace
and NASA Goddard will help develop the payload.

Aiming for a 2006 launch
and arrival at Pluto before 2020, NASA officials say the mission must pass a
confirmation review that will address significant risks such as schedule and
technical milestones and regulatory approval for launch of the mission’s nuclear
power source. Funding must also be available; Congress provided $30 million
in fiscal 2002 for the mission to procure a launch vehicle and start developing
the spacecraft and science instruments, but no funding for subsequent years
is included in the administration’s budget plan.

Pluto is the most remote
planet in the solar system; its elliptical orbit has an average distance of
3.66 billion miles (5.91 billion kilometers) from the sun — nearly 40 times
the distance between Earth and the sun. The Kuiper Belt is a source of comets
and believed to be the source of much of Earth’s water and the simple chemical
precursors of life. “We’ll explore frontier worlds near the edge of the planetary
system,” says Stern, who is also the director of SwRI’s Department of Space
Studies, Boulder. “This mission is likely to rewrite textbooks regarding the
origins 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.
We are very excited to be a part of this wonderful NASA mission.”

NASA will work with Stern
to further define mission costs and to finalize the design of the spacecraft
and its accommodation of the instrument sets. New Horizons is planned
for launch in January 2006 and, depending on the launch vehicle selected, would
reach Pluto and its moon, Charon, in July of 2016 or 2018. On the way, the small,
lightweight craft would pass Jupiter, using the giant planet’s gravity as a
slingshot toward Pluto and exploring the Jovian system.

The spacecraft team plans
to use several proven subsystems already designed for other APL planetary missions,
saving money while reducing risk and shortening the project’s development schedule.
New Horizons‘ remote-sensing instruments will characterize the global
geology and geomorphology of Pluto and Charon, map their surface compositions
and temperatures, and examine Pluto’s atmosphere in detail. Encounters with
Kuiper Belt Objects will occur after the Pluto-Charon flyby.

“The Kuiper Belt is an
archeological dig into the early history of our solar system,” says Dr. Andrew
Cheng, New Horizons project scientist at APL. “It’s full of small, icy,
dirty and rocky objects that started to build into planets but, for some mysterious
reason, stopped in mid-stride. It’s a fascinating region.”

Following the successful
management model of NASA’s Discovery Program, New Horizons is a principal
investigator-led team representing academia, industry, NASA centers and other
communities. In addition to Stern, Coughlin and Cheng, the management team includes
Mission Director Dr. Robert Farquhar of APL and Science Payload Manager William
Gibson of SwRI. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, will provide
navigation support, and tracking and communication services through NASA’s Deep
Space Network.

“Leading the first mission
to Pluto is an exciting opportunity for the Applied Physics Laboratory,” says
APL Director Dr. Richard Roca. “We promise a rewarding mission for NASA and
for avid space science supporters, such as Sen. Barbara Mikulski and the Maryland
delegation, who have done so much to advance science and technology in the state.”

New Horizons is
the latest of several NASA projects on APL’s roster. The Lab manages the Comet
Nucleus Tour (CONTOUR), which launches
in July 2002 to study at least two diverse comets, and MErcury Surface, Space
ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER),
set to become the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury after launching in March
2004. APL also managed the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR)
mission — which included the first spacecraft to orbit and land on an asteroid
— and recently secured a 12-year, $600 million contract for missions in
NASA’s Sun-Earth Connection program.

For more information on
the Pluto study, visit the New Horizons Web site at