"Don't scuttle the fleet before we reach the far shore," The Planetary Society is urging Congress. For the first time since 1970, the Administration is set to cancel the development of future outer planet probes, and the Society is calling on Congress to restore funding for a Pluto/Kuiper Belt flyby mission and a Europa orbiter.
"Emperior Zhu Qizhen of China recalled his fleet of exploration in 1433 just as it was about to sail into the uncharted Atlantic Ocean," said Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society. "Do Congress and the Administration want to follow in the footsteps of a man who stopped his nation from exploring new worlds?"
Since the 1960's the U.S. has explored every planet in the solar system except Pluto. Pluto is located in the Kuiper Belt, a ring made of millions of icy bodies orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune. Kuiper Belt objects are the oldest and most primitive bodies in the solar system and may be the source of water and organic material delivered to Earth in its early history. The Pluto/Kuiper Belt mission will visit several of these objects in addition to making the first ever visit to our outermost planet, Pluto, and its moon Charon.
If the Pluto/Kuiper Belt mission is cancelled now, the best opportunity for exploration of this frontier planet will be lost for decades, if not centuries. The Pluto/Kuiper Belt flyby takes advantage of the last Jupiter gravity-assist available for more than a decade. This opportunity makes it possible to carry out the mission at a total cost of less than $500 million. No Pluto mission will ever be cheaper. No other mission can be done before Pluto's atmosphere is expected to freeze as the planet moves further from the Sun on its elliptical orbit.
There have been three previous attempts to cancel the Pluto/Kuiper Belt mission. Now the Administration has decided to postpone the entire outer planets program indefinitely. It says that NASA will begin two new initiatives - a line of mid-sized missions called New Frontiers, as well as nuclear propulsion for future outer planets missions. But nuclear propulsion will not be ready to fly for many years. The currently proposed Pluto mission, called New Horizons, can be flown in the next few years and exactly fits the guidelines for New Frontiers.
The Europa mission is also of extraordinary scientific importance. Nowhere in our solar system besides Earth -- and maybe Mars -- do we expect to find a planet with so much liquid water. Water under the surface of ice-covered Europa may be a nurturing ground for life.
The Europa orbiter would not qualify as a New Frontiers mission. If its cancellation is allowed to stand, no other mission would take its place in the foreseeable future.
The proposed cancellation of these missions was not a financial decision. In fact, their replacements will cost more. A relatively small budget increase would allow outer planets exploration to return to the NASA budget - and the Pluto and Europa missions to continue.
" We should not repeat the shortsightedness of the Ming emperors," said Friedman. "We should not scuttle our fleet before it sets sail."
Members of The Planetary Society urge Congress to restore the Outer Planets exploration program to the NASA budget and to continue its support of previous years for both the launch of a Pluto mission in 2006 and the development of a Europa mission.