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News from the National Academies
Date: July 11, 2002
Contacts: Jennifer Burris, Media Relations Associate
Cory Arberg, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

For Immediate Release

Missions to Kuiper Belt Now, Europa Within the Decade
Are Key to Space Discoveries

WASHINGTON -- Sending a probe to the Kuiper Belt and its largest member, Pluto, should be NASA's first priority in solar system exploration, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. Larger, more comprehensive efforts are also needed, beginning with a trip to Jupiter's moon Europa, said the committee that wrote the report.

"Solar system exploration is the grand human endeavor that seeks to discover the nature and origin of the system of planets in which we live, and find out whether life exists beyond Earth," said committee chair Michael Belton, president, Belton Space Exploration Initiatives, Tucson, Ariz. "To continue this exploration in the most productive way, using finite resources, NASA's missions must be prioritized."

The report outlines key objectives and associated missions that could be launched between 2003 and 2013. Objectives include learning how life developed in the solar system, determining whether life exists beyond Earth, understanding the nature and origin of the planets, and discovering how the laws of nature have led to the complexity of the solar system. To address these questions, NASA needs to send a series of robotic spacecraft ranging from small-scale undertakings that cost under $325 million to more extensive midsize missions that cost up to $650 million, the committee said. The small-scale missions should be launched at least once every 18 months.

The first of the midsize missions should be sent to the newly discovered and unexplored Kuiper Belt, which is a collection of primitive, icy objects beyond Neptune's orbit; some types of comets are thought to have originated there. Pluto, the largest member of the Kuiper Belt, is about 3 billion miles from Earth and is the only planet in the solar system that has not been directly observed by a robotic probe.

The administration's spending bill for NASA for fiscal year 2003, however, eliminates funding for a Pluto mission, citing the lack of community consensus on its importance. But the committee said a Kuiper Belt-Pluto mission should be a top priority because the science is compelling. Exploring the Kuiper Belt will contribute to a more complete understanding of planet formation and the origins of organic matter. Moreover, the technology exists today to build a probe that can visit and compare several objects and determine the diversity of their properties.

Larger missions should be deployed once every decade. These flagship missions, costing in excess of $650 million, will allow extended observation and experimentation, the report says. Priority for these missions should go to a spacecraft designed to explore Europa and confirm the presence or absence of an ocean under its icy surface. Europa is likely to contain the three things necessary for life to evolve -- liquid water, a source of heat, and organic material.

Other recommended midsize missions include collecting and returning to Earth samples from the Moon's South Pole, and deploying a Jupiter orbiter. Exploring a large impact basin located near the lunar South Pole will provide insight into the early history of the Earth-Moon system, added the committee. NASA also needs to create a new orbiter to carry probes to study Jupiter's atmosphere and determine if the planet has a core. To meet future exploration goals, the agency needs to make significant investments in new spacecraft and instrument technology, including the development of nuclear power sources and in-space nuclear propulsion. In addition, NASA needs to partner with the National Science Foundation to build and operate the Large-Aperture Synoptic Survey Telescope, a ground-based facility designed to search the sky and detect the majority of larger, near-Earth objects as well as observe more distant ones in the Kuiper Belt.

The study was sponsored by NASA. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.
The report New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy is available on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Copies will be available for purchase later this summer from the National Academy Press; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Space Studies Board

Solar System Exploration Survey Steering Group

Michael J. S. Belton (chair)
President
Belton Space Exploration Initiatives
Tucson, Ariz.

Carolyn C. Porco (vice-chair)
Institute Scientist
Southwest Research Institute and
Adjunct Professor
University of Colorado
Boulder

Michael A. A'Hearn
Professor of Astronomy
University of Maryland
College Park

Joseph A. Burns
Professor of Astronomy
Cornell University
Ithaca, N.Y.

Ronald Greeley
Regents' Professor of Geology
Center for Meteoritic Studies
Arizona State University
Tempe

James W. Head III
Louis and Elizabeth Scherck Professor
Department of Geological Sciences
Brown University
Providence, R.I.

Wesley T. Huntress Jr.
Director
Geophysical Laboratory
Carnegie Institution
Washington, D.C.

Andrew P. Ingersoll
Professor of Planetary Science
California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, Calif.

David C. Jewitt
Professor
Institute for Astronomy
University of Hawaii
Honolulu

John F. Mustard
Associate Professor
Department of Geological Sciences
Brown University
Providence, R.I.

Andrew F. Nagy
Professor of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Dimitri A. Papanastassiou
Research Scientist
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, Calif.

Robert T. Pappalardo
Assistant Professor of Planetary Science
University of Colorado
Boulder

Mitchell Sogin
Director
Bay Paul Center for Comparative Molecular Biology and Evolution
Marine Biological Laboratory
Woods Hole, Mass.

A. Thomas Young2
Executive Vice President
Lockheed Martin Corp. (retired)
Onancock, Va.

Steering Group Panels

Inner Planets Panel

Carle M. Pieters (chair)
Professor
Department of Geological Sciences
Brown University
Providence, R.I.

Ronald Greeley (vice-chair)
Regents' Professor of Geology
Arizona State University
Tempe

Mars Panel

John A. Wood1 (chair)
Staff Scientist
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Cambridge, Mass.

John F. Mustard (vice-chair)
Associate Professor
Department of Geological Sciences
Brown University
Providence, R.I.

Giant Planets Panel

Reta Beebe (chair)
Professor Astronomy
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces

Andrew P. Ingersoll (vice-chair)
Professor of Planetary Science
California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, Calif.

Large Satellites Panel

Alfred McEwen (chair)
Associate Professor and Director
Planetary Image Research Laboratory
University of Arizona
Tucson

Robert T. Pappalardo (vice-chair)
Assistant Professor of Planetary Science
University of Colorado
Boulder

Primitive Bodies Panel

Dale Cruikshank (chair)
Space Scientist
NASA Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, Calif.

Michael A. A'Hearn (vice-chair)
Professor of Astronomy
University of Maryland
College Park

Astrobiology Panel

Jonathan Lunine (co-chair)
Professor of Planetary Science and Physics
Lunar and Planetary Laboratory
University of Arizona
Tucson

John Baross (co-chair)
Professor of Oceanography
University of Washington
Seattle

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

David H. Smith
Study Director


1 Member, National Academy of Sciences
2 Member, National Academy of Engineering