Will we complete the reconnaissance of our solar system or not? NASA and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) may be seriously contemplating the cancellation of the Pluto Express mission now in development by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The mission to Pluto -- the only planet in the solar system not yet explored by spacecraft -- is currently planned for a 2004 launch. This is the last opportunity for more than a decade to take advantage of the Jupiter gravity assist needed to reach the distant planet.
The Society has launched a campaign to urge its 100,000 members and the interested public to take immediate action asking Congress to forestall any attempt to cancel the mission. Individuals can log into The Planetary Society's website for more information and to directly contact their members of Congress.
"For four decades we have sent missions of exploration into space, from heat-seared Mercury to the blue wonder of Neptune. What will it say of our generation -- and our lack of wonder and curiosity -- if we stop now, right before exploring Pluto, the last outpost planet of our Solar system?" asks Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society.
Pluto is an object of intense interest and mystery to scientists. Speculations abound about whether it's part of a double planet with its companion Charon, a burnt out comet or large asteroid, or even a planet in its own right.
It is also a mystery why NASA would consider canceling development of Pluto Express. The argument presented is that NASA cannot afford to do both a Europa orbiter and a Pluto flyby, even though both of these missions were part of a previously approved outer planets exploration program.
Recently, NASA delayed the Europa orbiter -- from a 2004 launch to 2006 or 2007 -- because of technical concerns. The Europa orbiter requires new technology for power and radiation-hard electronic components. However, canceling the Pluto mission would not be because of technical reasons. It would be a political budgetary decision.
"Either administration support for space science is now diminishing or NASA is returning to the old days of fewer, more expensive missions," said Friedman.
The Planetary Society strongly believes that both the Europa orbiter and the Pluto mission should be launched (as well as a solar probe also planned for the outer planets exploration program). Reasonable financial resources exist in NASA and in the U.S. to fund all these missions during the time period of 2004-2008.
The Planetary Society feels that the public strongly supports completing our reconnaissance of all nine planets in the solar system and urges everyone to join the Society's campaign to make that support known to NASA and Congress.