NASA still hopes to send a spacecraft to Pluto within a few years, despite putting the mission on hold in September because of its soaring price tag. In an attempt to reduce the cost, the agency has decided to farm out the mission. Today, NASA's space science chief Ed Weiler urged universities and industry to come up with cheap plans that could make the flyby possible.
The flight to Pluto, along with a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, was originally budgeted for $654 million. But this summer, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California--which was to carry out the mission--estimated that the real cost would be as much as $1.5 billion. Weiler said last September that NASA simply doesn't have the money to carry out both missions, but his decision to scrap the Pluto flyby sparked an outcry of protest from planetary scientists.
At a press conference today, Weiler noted the space agency can't promise that there will be enough money to give the winner of the competition--due to be chosen by next fall--the green light to proceed. But he says he hopes that the mission can be saved, especially since orbital mechanics dictate that it be launched no later than 2006. Pluto is receding from the sun, and researchers estimate its atmosphere will freeze and collapse around 2020. Says Weiler: "This is our last chance in a generation to get to Pluto."