The Planetary Society today called on the U.S. Congress to restore funding for the Pluto and Europa missions, following the endorsement of these two missions in the newly released National Academy of Sciences report, "New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy."
"While the report encompasses all aspects of planetary exploration," said Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society, "the pressing issue before Congress is whether they will now overturn the Administration's proposed cancellation of the Pluto/Kuiper Belt flyby and Europa orbiter missions."
The National Academy commends the scientific value of exploring these distant worlds, stating, "A mission to the Kuiper belt, including Pluto-Charon, will provide the first exploration of this newly discovered domain in our solar system...The technical readiness of this mission is judged high...Europa holds the most promise for understanding the biological potential of icy satellites."
"The Pluto/Kuiper Belt mission is the best opportunity for exploration of these objects for decades, if not centuries," said Friedman. "If the Pluto mission is delayed, costs will rise and other missions, including the Europa orbiter, will also be delayed."
The Europa mission was strongly endorsed in the report as a top priority because of its potential for the search for extraterrestrial life.
The Solar System Exploration Survey was conducted by the Space Studies Board of the National Research Council (NRC), part of the National Academy of Sciences. At NASA's request, the NRC conducted a planetary science community assessment of what the priorities in planetary exploration should be for the next 10 years.
The NRC steering committee asked the Planetary Society, in conjunction with the report, to poll the public about their views on planetary exploration. Over 50,000 people responded to the poll on the Society's web site in just two weeks time.
The Society has led public interest advocacy for the Pluto mission for several years, and twice before helped convince Congress to overturn proposals to cancel the development of a Pluto mission. This year the Bush Administration also proposed cancellation of the Europa orbiter mission plan in addition to the Pluto mission.
"We are sending a letter to Congress signed by thousands of people from every Congressional district in the US asking for restoration of the funding for the Pluto and Europa missions," said Friedman.
The Planetary Society is conducting a petition drive on the Society's web.
The Pluto/Kuiper Belt mission is slated for launch in 2006; the Europa mission would follow later in the decade.
The Pluto/Kuiper Belt mission would take advantage of the last Jupiter gravity-assist available for more than a decade. No later mission could be done before Pluto's elliptical orbit carries it farther out of the ecliptic plane, making it hard to reach other Kuiper Belt objects during the same mission. The planet's greater distance from Earth would also increase flight time and communication difficulties, reducing the amount of real estate that could be imaged at both Pluto and its moon Charon.