A team led by the Southwest
Research Institute
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

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 exploration.”

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.

SwRI is an independent, nonprofit, applied research and development
organization based in San Antonio, Texas, with more than 2,700 employees and
an annual research volume of more than $315 million.


Maria Martinez
(210) 522-3305

Dr. Alan Stern
(303) 546-9670