New Horizons Pluto Mission Prepares for Launch

The one-way New Horizons mission is scheduled to launch Tuesday on its way to Pluto. If everything goes right, the craft will make its encounter with Pluto in 2015. Alan Stern, executive director, Space Science and Engineering Division, Southwest Research Institute; Principal Investigator, New Horizons mission, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Well, while these researchers are waiting for their craft to come home, another group is anxiously awaiting Tuesday. That's when a one-way mission, one-way ticket that they've been planning for years finally gets under way, is scheduled to. The New Horizons mission to Pluto is scheduled to lift off next week. And then if everything goes OK, it will make its encounter with Pluto in 2015. Joining me now for a preview of the mission is Alan Stern. He's executive director of the Space Science Engineering Division at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado and principal investigator for the New Horizons mission.

Welcome back to the program, Dr. Stern.

Dr. ALAN STERN (Southwest Research Institute): Thanks, Ira. Hi.

FLATOW: This has been a long road for you, has it not?

Dr. STERN: It has been. We're very happy to be here, though.

FLATOW: Tell us what you hope to accomplish on this mission.

Dr. STERN: Well, we're going to accomplish a couple things. First, we're going to make the first reconnaissance of a new type of planet, a so-called ice dwarf, which Pluto is our prime example. Secondly, we're going to explore pretty deeply the process of planetary formation in the outer solar system by studying these half-built worlds that litter the deep outer solar system, the so-called Kuiper belt. And finally, we're going to continue to show just how much the United States leads in planetary exploration--really leads the world.

FLATOW: Yeah, but you're--you know, with the budget going for NASA to a lot of human exploration, aren't you suffering a little bit in your part of the world of robotic exploration?

Dr. STERN: Actually, robotic exploration's doing very, very well. We have many more missions now than we did a decade ago in planetary science, and quite a number are on the drawing board and being built.

FLATOW: So what will you do when you get to Pluto? What's going to happen there?

Dr. STERN: Well, we're going to have an almost six-month encounter, starting very far out, to make imagery and a specter that'll tell us about Pluto's surface composition, its atmosphere, etc. That'll get better and better week by week, month by month until it reaches a crescendo, the actual close fly-by as we zip through the Pluto system and visit its moons.

FLATOW: Might you find other Pluto-like planets while you're out there, or are we leaving that problem to someone else?

Dr. STERN: That'll be done by ground-based observatories here on the Earth.

FLATOW: Because, you know, there is this controversy about whether we should consider Pluto an actual planet or not.

Dr. STERN: I'm aware of that.

FLATOW: And where do you stand on it?

Dr. STERN: I like to say a Chihuahua's still a dog because we know genetically it's a puppy dog. You know, Pluto's a planet and it doesn't matter how many of them there are like Pluto, and it doesn't make them more or less of whatever they are. They are what they are.

FLATOW: Right. Well, I'm hoping that you'll have a successful launch this Tuesday, right?

Dr. STERN: We're looking forward to that, and if we don't get under way Tuesday, then we'll get under way a few days later when all the conditions are right. We're not going to fly until we're ready.

FLATOW: Well, we'll be--we'll check back with you as the mission progresses. I want to thank you for taking time to talk with us.

Dr. STERN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Alan Stern is executive director of the Space Science and Engineering Division at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, and the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission. We're wishing him good luck next week.

We're going to take a short break, and when we come back a little bit of a birthday celebration actually. Ben Franklin. Ben Franklin turns 300 next week; doesn't look a day over 299. We'll be right back after this short break and talk about him with your questions, so stay with us.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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