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May 24, 2005

'Motivated' Team Eyes Mission's Next Stage

Pluto might be about 3 billion miles from Earth, but it seems a little closer for the team leading NASA's proposed first mission to the "last planet."

With spacecraft assembly and several successful mission simulations and system performance tests behind them, New Horizons team members are gearing up for the mission's next stage: pre-launch space environment testing. In early June, the spacecraft is scheduled to move from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. - where it was designed and built - to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. At Goddard, New Horizons will get a full dose of the rough, cold and airless conditions it would encounter during launch and the planned voyage to Pluto and its moon, Charon.

"Everyone has worked very hard to get to this point," says Glen Fountain, the New Horizons project manager at APL. "System-level tests have gone well and we're in good shape. The team is motivated - we've come a long way over the past year and we are ready to get into the environmental test program."

NASA proposes to launch New Horizons in January 2006, aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. After launch, New Horizons would swing through the Jupiter system in February or March 2007, getting a gravity push toward Pluto-Charon and a chance to exercise its science instruments on the large planet. It could reach Pluto-Charon - and begin a detailed, six-month flyby reconnaissance study - as early as 2015.

APL manages New Horizons for NASA's Science Mission Directorate; Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute's Department of Space Studies leads the mission as principal investigator. The mission team includes major partners in Ball Aerospace, Boeing, the Department of Energy, KinetX, Inc., Lockheed Martin, Goddard Space Flight Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA Kennedy Space Center, the University of Colorado and Stanford University.

Launch Approval Update

New Horizons' travels would take it to a new class of worlds at the edge of our solar system - and to a region too far from the Sun for solar panels to work. Spacecraft designs call for a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) to power new Horizons' systems and science instruments.

NASA's environmental and launch risk analyses for launching New Horizons with an RTG continues. The public comment period on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement ended April 11; NASA is now working on a Final Environmental Impact Statement, projected for release this summer. The agency expects to issue its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) record of decision for New Horizons this fall. If NASA decides to proceed with launch preparation, it will then request final approval to launch from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Check here for more information on New Horizons' planned power source and the NEPA process.

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