Planet lovers campaign to save Pluto Express
Artist's rendering of the proposed Pluto-Kuiper Express spacecraft approaching Pluto
(CNN) -- The largest space interest group in the world wants Congress to ensure funding for a mission to Pluto that it fears NASA might call off for budgetary reasons.
The Pluto-Kuiper Express is currently slated to become the first spacecraft to visit the mysterious world, the smallest and usually farthest planet-like body from the sun.
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The Planetary Society on Friday urged its 100,000 members to contact elected leaders in Congress, following reports that NASA and White House budget planners were considering killing the mission.
"There does seem to be enough smoke to convince us there is fire," said society director Louis Friedman of the possible cancellation.
Michael Drake, chair of NASA's solar system exploration subcommittee, shared Friedman's concern about the Pluto-Kuiper Express.
'Danger of being cancelled'
"It is indeed in danger of being cancelled," said Drake, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
NASA managers are considering more factors than just the budget in deciding the fate of the mission, Drake said. The intended launch vehicle will likely not be ready in time for the planned launch in 2004, the last opportunity for a decade to use the gravity of Jupiter to slingshot the probe to Pluto.
The spacecraft's proposed plutonium power supply could cost more than expected as well, Drake said.
"All of this is leading to a serious re-thinking of what we can achieve with the current budget," he said.
Mars shadow darkens Pluto
The planet nearest Earth could indirectly affect the expedition to Pluto. The loss of two Mars probes in 1999 prompted NASA to restructure its red planet exploration program, leading to additional costs, Drake said.
Also, NASA announced Thursday it was considering sending two rovers instead of one to Mars in 2003. The additional mobile probe could almost double the price tag of a single rover mission.
"I don't think there's a direct tie but there may be an indirect tie in the political sense," said Friedman of the Mars and Pluto missions. "While (NASA) is seeking funding for two rovers, it might not be able to fully fund other items."
Pluto is a mystery to scientists. Speculation abounds as to whether it is a planet in its own right, part a double planet with its companion Charon, a large asteroid or a burnt-out comet. The cold and dark Pluto system could provide clues about planetary evolution and the origin of Earth's atmosphere, NASA said.
After a trip of eight to 12 years, the Pluto-Kuiper Express would study and map Pluto and Charon, then fly by the Kuiper Disc, a recently discovered ring of "ice dwarfs" or minor planets beyond the major planets.
A NASA spokesman said the agency is dealing with cost overruns with recent projects, but downplayed worries over the fate of the Pluto mission, which has an estimated cost greater than $350 million.
"We are currently in the cycle of the budget discussions where we are looking at all the options for the next fiscal year," Don Savage said. "Singling out Pluto-K is unwarranted. I can't see why any particular mission is considered being at particular risk."
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The Planetary Society
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