The impact of the shutdown of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico could ripple out to the distant corners of the solar system. The lab's closure last month due to security concerns (ScienceNOW, 23 July) has jeopardized a NASA mission to Pluto and the Kuiper belt. "I am worried," says S. Alan Stern, a planetary scientist with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, who is the principal investigator.
The spacecraft, slated for a 2006 launch, is the first in a series of outer planetary flights. In those far reaches of space, solar power is not an option. Instead, the mission will be powered by plutonium-238, obtained from Russia and converted by Los Alamos scientists into pellets. But the 16 July "stand down" at the lab has shut down that effort, which already was on a tight schedule due to the lengthy review required for any spacecraft containing nuclear material.
The 2006 launch date was chosen to make use of a gravity assist from Jupiter to rocket the probe to Pluto by 2015. A 1-year delay could cost an additional 3 to 4 years in transit time. "It won't affect the science we will be able to do in a serious way, but it will delay it and introduce risks," says Stern. A long delay could mean that Pluto's thin atmosphere is lost to science, because some researchers fear that it could freeze and collapse later in the next decade. But the likelihood and timing of that possibility are in dispute.
Los Alamos officials are upbeat. "Lab activity is coming back on line," says spokesperson Nancy Ambrosiano. Even so, lab director George "Pete" Nanos says that it could take as long as 2 months before everyone is back at work. NASA officials declined comment, but Stern says "many people are working to find remedies."
The New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission