The Planetary Society urges Congress to provide additional funds for the Pluto mission to enable NASA to continue the entire Outer Planets Program. The Society's campaign to save the Pluto-Kuiper Express has generated messages from Society members throughout the United States to their congressional representatives supporting the 2004 launch, which was scheduled to arrive in 2012.
Last week, NASA issued the Jet Propulsion Laboratory a stop work order on the Pluto mission and directed engineers to develop a cheaper design that might explore Pluto by 2020. The 2004 launch will be the last opportunity for more than a decade to take advantage of the Jupiter gravity assist needed to reach this mysterious outpost of our solar system.
"Pluto is the only planet in the solar system not yet explored by spacecraft," said Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society. "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."
The Society launched a campaign in July 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 still log into The Planetary Society's website for more information and to directly contact their members of Congress.
"Although Pluto will still be there in 2020, scientists are not sure that its atmosphere will be," said Friedman. "Many believe the thin atmosphere will freeze to the surface as the planet's orbit moves further away from the Sun, with the next thaw occurring over 200 years from now, around 2230."
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 budgetary decision.
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 the U.S. to fund all these missions during the time period of 2004-2008.
"A modest increase in the NASA budget -- say 2% -- would solve the funding problem for the Outer Planets program," said Friedman.
The Planetary Society's campaign has demonstrated to Congress the public's support of this mission to complete the reconnaissance of all nine planets in our solar system. The society urges NASA to resume its own support of a Pluto launch in 2004.