Montage of our solar system

In the first step of a potential two-step process, JPL is included in two proposals selected by NASA for detailed mission feasibility studies as candidates for a Pluto-Kuiper Belt (PKB) mission to explore the only planet in our solar system yet to be visited by a spacecraft from Earth.

The President's FY 2002 budget request does not contain development funding for a Pluto mission. The Congress requested that NASA not do anything precipitous which would preclude the ability to develop a Pluto-Kuiper mission until the Congress could consider it in the context of the FY 2002 budget. If funding is provided in the FY 2002 budget and either proposal is ultimately selected, the agency could down- select a proposal for development to ultimately fly a spacecraft to Pluto and beyond. If a PKB mission is developed, launch would be in the 2004-2006 time frame and the spacecraft would arrive at Pluto before 2020.

"The PKB mission represents a possible opportunity to visit the only planet not yet explored by spacecraft," said Dr. Colleen Hartman, Pluto Program Director in NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. "It's really an opportunity to, in a sense, look into a deep-freeze of history which could tell us how our solar system evolved to what it is today, including the precursor ingredients of life."

Each proposal team will receive $450,000 to conduct a three-month concept study. At the end of the three months, NASA will thoroughly evaluate program content and technical, schedule and cost feasibilities of both proposals to determine if either is selectable.

The two selected proposals were judged to have the best science value among the five proposals submitted to NASA in April 2001 in response to the Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission Announcement of Opportunity. Each selected investigation will work with the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters to finalize the design of the spacecraft and its accommodation of the instrument sets.

The selected investigations are:

Pluto and Outer Solar System Explorer (POSSE). Dr. Larry Esposito, Principal Investigator, University of Colorado, Boulder, will lead a team including the following major participants: JPL, Pasadena, Calif.; Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver; Malin Space Science Systems, Inc., San Diego; Ball Aerospace Corp., Boulder, Colo.; and University of California, Berkeley.

New Horizons: Shedding Light on Frontier Worlds. Dr. S. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo., will lead a team including the following major participants: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.; Ball Aerospace Corp.; Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. and JPL.

Both proposals are for complete missions, including launch vehicle, spacecraft and science instrument payload. Both address the major science objectives defined in the original announcement. Each proposal includes a remote sensing package that includes imaging instruments, a radio science investigation, and other experiments to characterize the global geology and morphology of Pluto and Charon, map their surface composition, and characterize Pluto's neutral atmosphere and its escape rate.

Pluto is a different kind of planet. It is not a rocky planet like Earth, Mars, Mercury or Venus, or a gas giant like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus or Neptune. It is a Kuiper Belt Object, a class of objects composed of material left over after the formation of the other planets, which has never been exposed to the higher temperatures and solar radiation levels of the inner solar system.

It is known that Pluto has large quantities of ices of nitrogen, and simple molecules containing combinations of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen that are the necessary precursors of life. These ices would be largely lost to space if Pluto had come close to the Sun. Instead they remain on Pluto as a representative sample of the primordial material that set the stage for the evolution of the solar system as it exists today, including life.

If a PKB mission is developed, it will be a principal investigator-led investigation, bringing together teams from academia, industry, NASA centers and other communities, and will be developed following the highly successful management philosophy of the Discovery Program.

News Media Contact

Martha J. Heil (818) 354-0850
JPL Media Relations Office