M. Martinez
Southwest Research Institute
(210) 522-3305

M. Buckley
JHU Applied Physics Laboratory
(240) 228-7536

NASA Authorizes Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission to Move Forward

For immediate release

Boulder, Colo. - April 9, 2003 - This week NASA authorized the New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt (PKB) mission to go forward with preliminary spacecraft and ground system construction. New Horizons is led by the Southwest Research Institute(r) (SwRI(r)) and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). Pluto was discovered in 1930, and the first Kuiper Belt Object was sighted in 1992. Since then, almost 1,000 more objects have been detected. Neither Pluto nor Kuiper Belt Objects have ever been explored by spacecraft.

In July 2002, the National Research Council's Decadal Survey for Planetary Science ranked the reconnaissance of Pluto-Charon and the Kuiper Belt as its highest priority for a new start mission in planetary science, citing the fundamental scientific importance of understanding this region of the solar system.

New Horizons is scheduled for a January 2006 launch, with an arrival at Pluto and its moon Charon as early as the summer of 2015. The 415-kg (930-lb) spacecraft will characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and Charon, map the surface compositions and temperatures of these worlds, and study Pluto's unique atmosphere in detail. It will then visit one or more icy, primordial bodies in the Kuiper Belt, beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto, where it will make similar investigations. The spacecraft carries seven sensor packages to carry out these studies.

Baseline plans for the New Horizons mission include use of a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), which could supply over 200 watts of electrical power for the spacecraft. NASA selected new Horizons on November 29, 2001, after a competition between industry-university teams who responded to a NASA request for proposals released in January 2001. Since selection, the New Horizons mission and science team has been working to complete both the detailed design of the spacecraft, instruments, ground system, and mission profile and detailed planning for the construction phase of the project.

NASA's authorization to go forward with the New Horizons PKB mission follows an in-depth review of the entire project by a NASA review team that included more than two dozen experts in all facets of mission development and management. The team worked almost six months before presenting its final report to NASA Headquarters on March 3, 2003.

The principal investigator and leader of the New Horizons mission is Dr. Alan Stern. Stern is the director of the SwRI Space Studies Department in Boulder, Colo. "This is a truly historic step forward," he says. "For the first time, NASA is undertaking a mission to explore Pluto-Charon and the distant reaches of the solar system beyond Neptune. This kind of frontier exploration is one of the important ways that NASA and the American space program lead the world. Our team is proud of the authorization NASA has given us to proceed and we're reminded by the responsibility on our shoulders to make this mission a success."

SwRI President J. Dan Bates adds, "We are extremely pleased to be teaming with NASA, APL, and our other partners on such an historic mission, where we will literally move forward into the frontiers of space and scientific research."

Scheduled project milestones for New Horizons include the selection of a launch vehicle this summer, the start of spacecraft assembly in spring 2004, and the beginning of integrated spacecraft and instrument testing in May 2004.

In addition to APL and SwRI, the New Horizons team includes Stanford University, Ball Aerospace Corp., NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The mission science team includes expertise from the above institutions, as well as Lowell Observatory, NASA Ames Research Center, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Washington University (St. Louis), George Mason University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Colorado.

More information on New Horizons can be found at More information on Pluto-Charon and the Kuiper Belt can be found at


SwRI is an independent, nonprofit, applied research and development organization based in San Antonio, Texas, with more than 2,700 employees and an annual research volume of more than $339 million.

Updated June 23, 2003