First probe to Pluto poised for launch

Israeli who discovered Pluto's atmosphere will follow NASA's unmanned probe.

rocket 298 (photo credit: AP)
rocket 298
(photo credit: AP)
The scheduled Tuesday launch of America's first spacecraft to Pluto, New Horizons, was cancelled due to intense ground winds, NASA reported. Although no Israelis have been involved in the actual launch of New Horizons, America's first spacecraft to distant Pluto, the head of Tel Aviv University's Wise Observatory in Mitzpe Ramon has a special connection: In 1985, Dr. Noah Brosch discovered Pluto's atmosphere. But unlike the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which regards Pluto as the smallest planet revolving around the sun, Brosch regards it as only "an icy body." 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. The atmosphere is composed mostly of nitrogen and is very cold." 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. "Americans are among the strongest believers in claims that Pluto, discovered in the 1930s, is a planet," said Brosch. "Others, like me, say it's an icy body rather than a planet." American spacecraft have reached all the planets, and they view Pluto -- named for the ancient god of the underworld -- as the smallest and last uncharted one in the solar system. They changed the original mission somewhat so the probe could visit other places in the belt of ice, including Charon, one of its three moons. (Years later, Walt Disney named Mickey Mouse's canine friend Pluto.) The Americans want to learn what it's made of and its features, how it was created, why it has one big moon and two recently discovered smaller ones, Brosch said. Pluto is different from all the others visited by spacecraft so far. "There is a very low chance of some primitive form of life on it. Anything is possible." "New Horizons will study a unique world, and we can only imagine what we maylearn. This is a prime example of scientific missions that complement the Vision for Space Exploration," said Mary Cleave, NASA's associate administrator for the probe. 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-Charonand 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 than the inner, rocky planets (like Earth) or the outer gas giants, Pluto is a different type of planet known as an "ice dwarf," 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 intothe 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 kilos. It is powered by an Atlas V expendable launch vehicle, followed by a boost from a kick-stage solid propellant motor. It was designed to be the fastest spacecraft ever launched, reaching lunar orbit distance in just nine hours and passing Jupiter 13 months later, using that planet's gravity as a slingshot toward Pluto and shortening the trip by five years. This route also provides opportunities to test the spacecraft's instruments and flyby capabilities on 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. It will send back a beacon signal each week to give operators an instant read on spacecraft's electronic health. The whole probe, drawing electricity from a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator, operates on less power than a pair of 100-watt household light bulbs.