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Although no Israelis have been involved in Wednesday's scheduled launch of the first spacecraft to distant Pluto, the head of Tel Aviv University's Wise Observatory in Mitzpe Ramon has a special connection.
New Horizons, whose launch was postponed Tuesday because of high winds, will try to lift off Wednesday.
In 1985, Dr. Noah Brosch discovered Pluto's atmosphere. Twenty-one years ago, he and colleagues at the observatory had attached special equipment to the telescope and were able to detect the very thin atmosphere of Pluto, whose view from the rest of the world was "covered" by another star and visible only from the Middle East.
"We sent a telegram immediately to announce our discovery, and an article crediting me for the discovery was published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society," said Brosch.
"The atmosphere is composed mostly of nitrogen and is very cold," he added. The existence of the atmosphere was confirmed later by additional astronomers.
"I am excited by the launch of the unmanned spacecraft for pure scientific interest," said Brosch, who maintains contact with some NASA scientists involved in the probe, "as I have a special interest in small heavenly bodies. In geophysics and planetary science, there is much interest in understanding balls of ice."
"I would have loved to go," he told The Jerusalem Post with a smile, "but it will take almost 10 years to reach Pluto and is a one-way trip."
The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration regards Pluto as the smallest planet revolving around the sun, but Brosch disagrees.
"Americans are among the strongest believers in claims that Pluto, discovered in 1930, is a planet," said Brosch. "Others, like me, say it's an icy body rather than a planet."
Americans, whose spacecraft have reached all of the other planets, view Pluto - named for the ancient god of the underworld - as the smallest and last planet to be charted in the solar system. They changed the original mission somewhat so the probe could visit other places in the Kuiper Ice Belt, including Charon, one of its three moons.
The Americans want to learn what Pluto is made of, what its features are, how it was created and why it has one big moon and two recently discovered smaller ones, Brosch said. Pluto, with its eccentric orbit and extremely small size, is very different from all the planets visited by spacecraft so far.
"New Horizons will study a unique world, and we can only imagine what we may learn," said Mary Cleave, NASA's associate administrator for the probe. "This is a prime example of scientific missions that complement the Vision for Space Exploration."
The Vision for Space Exploration is a "bold new course into the cosmos - a journey that will return the space shuttle safely to flight, complete the construction of the International Space Station, take humans back to the moon and eventually to Mars and beyond," she continued.
The US National Academy of Sciences has ranked the exploration of Pluto, Charon and the Kuiper Ice Belt among the highest priorities for space exploration, citing the fundamental scientific importance of these bodies to advancing understanding of our solar system.
Different from the inner, rocky planets (like Earth) and the outer gas giants, Pluto is a type of planet known as an "ice dwarf," an object commonly found in the Kuiper Belt region billions of kilometers from the sun.
"Exploring Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is like conducting an archeological dig into the history of the outer solar system, a place where we can peek into the ancient era of planetary formation," said Alan Stern, the New Horizons principal investigator at Colorado's Southwest Research Institute Department of Space Studies.
Designed and built at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, the probe is the size of a piano and weighs less than 500 kg. It is powered by an Atlas V expendable launch vehicle, followed by a boost from a kick-stage solid propellant motor.
The probe was designed to be the fastest spacecraft ever launched; it is expected to reach lunar orbit distance in just nine hours and pass Jupiter closely 13 months later. By using that Jupiter's gravity as a slingshot toward Pluto, the probe's travel time is expected to be shortened by five years. This route also provides opportunities to test the spacecraft's instruments and flyby capabilities in the Jupiter system.
The NASA probe's science payload includes imaging, infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a multi-color camera, a long-range telescopic camera, two particle spectrometers, a space-dust detector and a radio science experiment. The dust counter was designed and built by students at the University of Colorado.
The spacecraft will go into electronic hibernation for much of the journey to Pluto. Operators will turn off all but the most critical electronic systems and monitor the spacecraft once a year to check out critical systems, calibrate instruments and perform any necessary course corrections. The probe is to send back a beacon signal each week to give operators an instant read on spacecraft's electronic health.
The probe, which draws electricity from a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator, operates on less power than a pair of 100-watt household light bulbs.
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