A NASA engineer has proposed a relatively quick, cheap way to send a spacecraft to Pluto, the only unexplored planet in the solar system.
Robert Farquhar, who manages the small missions program at NASA headquarters in Washington, said a rocket designed to send a probe to the sun also could hurl an unmanned spaceship to Pluto."It's a free ride," he said in an interview in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times.
Voyager 2's flight past Neptune last week leaves Pluto the only planet unvisited by a spacecraft from Earth. There are no plans for a Pluto mission, and such a flight won't be financially feasible for decades, officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have said.
Farquhar, who masterminded the flight of the first spacecraft to visit a comet, said his proposal would allow a probe to be launched toward Pluto within about a dozen years and for less than $150 million. That's cheap compared with the twin-spacecraft Voyager mission that visited four planets for $865 million.
NASA plans to send a probe through the sun's searing atmosphere right after the turn of the century.
To approach the sun at an angle that would allow scientists to monitor the probe throughout its flight, it first would have to be carried around Jupiter.
Farquhar said a lightweight Pluto probe could be carried on the same Titan rocket. Once they reach Jupiter, the probes would part for their respective targets. The Pluto probe, given a boost by Jupiter's gravity, would reach Pluto around 2014.
Pluto normally is the ninth and most distant planet from the sun. But Neptune now is temporarily in that position because of Pluto's elongated elliptical orbit.
Farquhar's proposal is "a very interesting possibility," said physicist Bruce Tsurutani of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, who is planning the solar probe. Tsurutani said Farquhar's proposal should receive strong consideration.
Physicist Alan Stern, a University of Colorado expert on Pluto, said the proposal is feasible. He suggested that any joint solar-Pluto mission be named "Fire and Ice."