- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2002

At the outset, it seems an expensive, slightly spacey idea: Sending a several hundred million dollar spacecraft several billion miles on a one-way exploratory journey to several small icy bodies simply for curiosity's sake.
That's what NASA scientists hope to do if Congress sees fit to supply the $488 million or so necessary to send an unmanned probe 3,700,000,000 odd miles to the planet Pluto, its moon Charon, and the icy Kuiper Belt at the extreme edge of the solar system. No one has ever had a close view of those orbiting icicles, and their small size coupled with their extreme distance makes even the Hubble Space Telescope myopic.
That's part of the reason NASA has had Plutonic dreams for more than a decade, even though they kept crashing due to budget realities. At one point, NASA canceled the program, and then reinstated it by setting up a competition in which private companies and public entities put in Pluto mission proposals based on a fairly strict set of parameters. The winner was New Horizons, a joint team from the San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute and the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.
While Congress funded the project for $30 million this year, the White House threatened to dash those Plutonic dreams by pulling the $122 million NASA budgeted for the mission in fiscal 2003. Congress may restore funding, although the actual numbers crunching won't begin at least until the appropriations process is completed.
That there are many competing, and probably equally worthy causes a problem understandable by anyone who has had to balance their checkbook. Even for an agency where the sky is supposedly the limit, financial resources are inevitably grounding, and going to Pluto probably entails postponing, or even terminating, other projects.
Yet those pragmatic realities shouldn't ground NASA's Plutonic dreams. Pluto is the smallest planet in the solar system (only one-fifth the Earth's size and one-five-hundredths of its mass). Charon is smaller by half, making them, mass for mass, the most evenly matched couple in the solar system. They might be the most ancient as well, and as such, could hold clues to the early history of planetary formation. Other intrigues may also await. In an interview, Leslie Young, payload science coordinator for the eponymous "New Horizons" spacecraft, pointed out that Pluto is a complex world, with "seasons, atmosphere, fascinating geography."
To examine those features, New Horizons has a sensor suite so complex that its assembly did, in fact, take a team of rocket scientists (it had to come somewhere). It includes PERSI, an instrument that will map both bodies' surfaces and determine their composition; REX, responsible for taking the temperature and determining the makeup of the planet's atmospheres (if any on Charon); PAM, used to sample the gasses at the top of Pluto's atmosphere and determine how fast they are escaping from it; and LORRI, a high resolution camera.
Assuming all goes well, those sensors will begin observing six months before New Horizons closest approach to the system, almost a decade after blastoff. Following it's anticipated launch in 2006, New Horizons will slingshot around the planet Jupiter (a sort of planetary Gas N' Go) before approaching Pluto around 2015. From there, it will be sent to examine a couple of Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs).
The Kuiper Belt is a big brother to the asteroid belt, containing many more large, ancient iceballs. New Horizons' exploratory targets have not been determined, though, since funding for the mission has not been secured.
It should be. The Kuiper Belt and the Pluto-Charon system are unknown realms and ready for exploration recognized as such by a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, which recommended that the Pluto probe be one of NASA's top priorities. There are also pragmatic reasons to proceed. The planets are favorably aligned literally, since the Jupiter slingshot won't be available if the mission is postponed past 2006. Moreover, the sun is already starting to set on the mission's exploratory hopes. In 1989, Pluto reached perihelion (its closest approach to the sun in its 248 year orbit), and as it continues to wander away, its atmosphere will freeze out and its lengthening shadows will make observations extremely difficult.
But beyond those pragmatic realities are the exploratory dreams that New Horizons will fulfill. While the cost of Edmund Hillary's Everest expedition was calculable, the worth of his achievement certainly was not. MasterCard continues to have fun with the concept, and even though the mission has no commercial potential, it's certainly a potential ad. ("Ph.D. in astrophysics: $80,000. Spacecraft: $200 million. Live photos from the edge of the solar system: Priceless.")
As Mr. Young put it, "It's a voyage of discovery. Whenever we fly past a new planet, we are constantly surprised by the depth of wonder of beauty." Or, as the band Smash Mouth pointed out in their hit "All Star," "So much to do so much to see/So what's wrong with taking the back streets/ You'll never know if you don't go."
Even while accounting for bottom-line realities, Congress should allocate the funds for NASA to fulfill its Plutonic dreams.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer and an editor for the Commentary section of The Washington Times.


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