A team led by the Southwest
Research Institute (SwRI) and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics
Laboratory (JHU APL) has just completed a NASA-funded, “Phase A” design
study for a Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission. This team, called “New Horizons,”
was one of two selected by NASA’s Office of Space Science early this
summer and funded at a level of $450,000 to conduct Pluto-Kuiper Belt
mission studies. The principal investigator of the New Horizons
Pluto-Kuiper belt mission study is Dr. Alan Stern of SwRI. The New
Horizons study team consists of over 20 scientific experts in Pluto and
Kuiper Belt studies, along with almost 100 engineers and other personnel
at SwRI, JHU APL, Stanford University, Ball Aerospace, and NASA’s Goddard
Space Flight Center.

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.

“NASA asked us to perform a detailed feasibility study for flying a
mission to explore Pluto and its giant satellite Charon, and to then go on
to the Kuiper Belt.” Says Principal Investigator Stern, “We found the
mission to be feasible with technologies that are essentially off the
shelf for deep space exploration. We also found that a launch as soon as
December 2004 can be accomplished.”

The New Horizons team studied flying a spacecraft equipped with sensitive,
miniaturized cameras, a radio science instrument, ultraviolet and infrared
spectrometers, and space plasma experiments. The study team found that
this combination of instruments is essentially ideal to characterize the
global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and its moon Charon, to map
their surface compositions, and to characterize Pluto’s atmosphere and its
atmospheric escape rate. “These are the very objectives NASA set forth as
goals for the Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission,” says New Horizons Payload
Manager Mr. William Gibson, also of SwRI. “We also found that all of this
can be accomplished with a significantly smaller, lighter, and far less
power hungry spacecraft than the famous Voyager outer planet
reconnaissance missions. It’s a real step forward for outer planet

The New Horizons team designed a complete mission, including spacecraft,
trajectory, instruments, and even education/public outreach plans for NASA
during the Phase A study. Its mission flies to Pluto using a gravitational
boost from Jupiter. “This reduces the necessary flight time and saves
money,” notes Stern. “The savings comes from the fact that by using
Jupiter’s powerful gravity as a slingshot, NASA can afford to launch the
mission on a smaller launch vehicle. Our plan also saves money by using
many subsystems already designed for other recent JHU APL planetary
missions; this way, NASA gets the maximum leverage on past investments.
Beyond saving dollars, this re-use of existing subsystem designs also
reduces risk and speeds the project development schedule.”

Should NASA select a Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission for development, it would
follow the management philosophy of NASA’s highly successful Discovery
Program, with a principal investigator-led team representing academia,
industry, NASA centers, and other communities. Launch would occur in
either December 2004 or January 2006, with the spacecraft arriving at
Pluto sometime between 2014 and 2018, depending on the type of launch
vehicle and the year of launch. Along the way to Pluto, New Horizons will
fly through the Jupiter system. Kuiper Belt object flybys would occur in
the years following the Pluto-Charon flyby.

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