Wind delays unmanned spacecraft's Pluto mission

Published: Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 17, 2006 at 8:35 p.m.

CAPE CANAVERAL - In a voyage expected to last nine years, what's one more day?

Scientists will have to wait at least until today to launch an unmanned spacecraft on a mission to Pluto, the solar system's last unexplored planet, after high winds forced NASA to postpone the flight of the New Horizons probe.

Winds at the launch pad on Tuesday exceeded the space agency's 38 mph restriction.

"The winds picked up sooner than expected," said MIT scientist Richard Binzel, one of the mission's investigators. "Blame the meteorologists."

Today's forecast held a greater chance of thunderstorms, clouds and gusty winds that could prevent a launch again, but scientists had until Feb. 14 to await better weather.

To reach Pluto, the probe must make a nine-year, 3 billion-mile voyage to the outer edges of the planetary system. The distance involved means scientists will not be able to receive data on Pluto until at least July 2015, the earliest date the mission is expected to arrive.

"To make a decision to work in the field of space science is almost the ultimate in delayed gratification," NASA administrator Michael Griffin said Tuesday at a news conference.

A successful journey to Pluto would complete an exploration of the planets started by NASA in the early 1960s with unmanned missions to observe Mars, Mercury and Venus.

"What we know about Pluto today could fit on the back of a postage stamp," Colleen Hartman, a deputy associate administrator at NASA, said earlier. "The textbooks will be rewritten after this mission is completed."

The launch also drew attention from opponents of nuclear power because the spacecraft is powered by 24 pounds of plutonium, whose natural radioactive decay will generate electricity for the probe's instruments.

Pluto is the only planet discovered by a U.S. citizen, though some astronomers dispute Pluto's right to be called a planet. It is an oddball icy dwarf unlike the rocky planets of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars and the gaseous planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

"My dad would be absolutely thrilled to see this," said Annette Tombaugh-Sitze, whose father, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, discovered Pluto in 1930.

Pluto is the brightest body in a zone of the solar system known as the Kuiper Belt, made up of thousands of icy, rocky objects, including tiny planets whose development was stunted by unknown causes. Scientists believe studying those "planetary embryos" can help them understand how planets were formed.

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