Date: July 11, 2002 Contacts: Jennifer Burris, Media Relations Associate Cory Arberg, Media Relations Assistant (202) 334-2138; e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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 Strategyis 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
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
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