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Thursday, 8 November, 2001, 12:58 GMT
Green light for Pluto
It will take at least 10 years to get to Pluto
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

Delighted scientists have welcomed the approval of space missions to the planet Pluto and Jupiter's moon Europa, on which there could be life.

A budget of $30m has been approved by the US House and Senate conference committee to develop the mission to Pluto.

Another surprise was the committee's agreement to fully fund future missions to Mars, something it was widely expected to cut.

However, the American space agency (Nasa) must provide a new, detailed plan for the exploration of the Red Planet beyond 2007.

Just in time

"This is a victory for public interest," said Louis Friedman, executive director of The Planetary Society.

"The people let Congress know that they want Nasa to explore Pluto - the only remaining unexplored planet in our Solar System - and Congress responded," he said.

Scientists say that the US Government's decision to sanction a probe to Pluto comes just in time. If Congress had cancelled the funding, the opportunity for reaching the distant world would have been lost for a generation.

Pluto's orbit is taking it away from the Sun and it is getting colder, so any further delay in sending a probe would have meant losing the chance of seeing the planet's atmosphere before it freezes and condenses in 2015.

Big push

Even so, the mission to Pluto cannot launch until 2006.

The Europa Orbiter
And this is the last opportunity for more than a decade that a probe can leave the Earth and take advantage of a Jupiter gravity-assist to be slung on to Pluto.

The mission time, depending on the launch vehicle selected, will be from 10-12 years.

The US Government also gave the go-ahead for the mission to put a spacecraft into orbit around Europa, one of Jupiter's major moons.

Europa is covered in ice but astronomers believe an ocean of water may exist beneath it that could harbour primitive life.

Full funding of $92.1m was also granted for the Next Generation Space Telescope - the successor to Hubble - and Nasa was ordered to submit a plan to launch it in 2007.

If that cannot be done, Congress said that the Hubble Space Telescope, which is now over 10 years old, must not be turned off before its replacement goes into orbit.

See also:

02 Feb 01 | Sci/Tech
Pluto's mysterious streak mapped
21 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Nasa revives Pluto probe
10 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
Pluto passes Neptune
25 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
Waterworld on Europa?
26 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
How life may live on Europa
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