Restore Pluto mission, space buffs tell NASA

Los Angeles Times

Advocates of the tiny planet Pluto now have a new mission: getting NASA to restore a suspended trip to the smallest and most distant member of the solar system – the only one that remains unexplored.

Citing ballooning costs for space missions, NASA officials ordered an immediate work stoppage late last month on the Pluto-Kuiper Express mission being planned at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Originally scheduled to be launched in 2004 and to reach the icy planet by 2012, a spacecraft is now not expected to reach Pluto until 2020 – a date some scientists say will be too late to probe the planet’s vanishing atmosphere.

But that decision is stirring up something of a public revolt. In just two weeks, the Planetary Society, a Pasadena-based group of space exploration enthusiasts, has received 10,000 letters protesting the suspension of the mission. And a Web petition created by a Pennsylvania teen-ager has received hundreds of signatures in just days.

“Pluto is the only planet in our solar system that has not been explored,” said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society. “We ought to finish the job we started in 1960.”

Though studied extensively from Earth, Pluto remains mysterious. It hasn’t even been photographed clearly. An image by the world’s best space telescope, the Hubble, reveals only faint blurs of dark and light on the surface of the planet, which is usually the farthest from the sun.

“A lot of Americans have a lot of faith in the space program. It really lets people down when they cancel a mission,” said Ted Nichols II, a 17-year-old high school senior and amateur astronomer from near Harrisburg, Pa., who created the www.plutomission.comc Web site.

Those signing on to the petition site come from all over this planet. “Vamos a Pluton!!!” reads a note from Argentina. “I want to be alive when the information comes back,” pleads a woman from Albuquerque, N.M.

Both Nichols and Friedman are surprised at the potent public response to Pluto. It may be because the distant planet has “the mystery of the edge,” surmises Friedman. Doug Stetson, who manages solar system exploration for JPL thinks it may be because most people dislike unfinished business. “There’s a real desire to complete the first wave of exploration,” he said.

But Alan Stern, an expert on Pluto at the Southwest Research Institute, is not surprised at all. “I think it’s because it’s diminutive,” he said of the planet, which is two-thirds the size of Earth’s moon. “Pluto’s the little planet that could. It’s every school kid’s favorite.”

Stern is among scientists concerned that a delayed mission will arrive too late to study the planet’s tenuous atmosphere. As Pluto moves away from the sun in its elliptical orbit, the atmosphere will freeze and collapse to the planet’s surface as snow. While it is not known when this will occur, some models show it happening before 2020, Stern said.

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