NASA Mission to Pluto Was Hard-Won

And meanwhile, a 17-year-old high school student in Etters, Pa., got his dander up and expressed his outrage on a Web site. Thousands of other letters followed and young Ted Nichols was invited to NASA headquarters for a chat.

After determining that Nichols was not motivated by either his or his family's financial interests, NASA officials asked him why he had become so whipped up over the "Pluto thing," Stern says.

Nichols, now a college freshman and on his way to what most likely will be a very promising career as a planetary geologist, responded:

"Because it's the coolest thing going on in NASA and I want to know why you guys canceled it. Everybody loved it."

The Planet That Never Grew Up

So, obviously, did a lot of scientists. Last year the National Research Council — the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences — gave the mission the number one priority for a "new start" mission in planetary science.

All of that helped pave the way toward this month's announcement, but the question remains: Why would anyone want to spend $500 million to go to an icy rock only 1,430 miles in diameter, with a moon half it's size, that some scientists don't think should even be considered a planet? Ever since Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, some have argued that it's meager size, eccentric orbit and placement in the solar system suggests it's just really an overgrown asteroid, not a planet.

That's just the point, Stern says. Pluto is a planet that "never grew up," he says, and thus offers a unique opportunity to study the evolution of planets, even our own.

The spacecraft will also turn its cameras and instruments on other inhabitants of a strange area called the Kuiper Belt, beyond Pluto, where hundreds of thousands of small objects circle the earth. Stern says that these objects should have formed a huge, gaseous planet, like the four outer planets, but something went very wrong.

"In Pluto," Stern says, "we have a chance to study a half-formed world, a world whose growth was truncated in the second trimester of gestation, so to speak. Everywhere else we have finished products. Here we have a chance to study an embryo of a planet. From the standpoint of studying planetary origins, you're talking the gold standard. It's like an archaeological dig into the history of the solar system."

Stern says whenever he speaks with school children, one of their favorite topics is Pluto.

"I've had children tell me they like Pluto because it's little," he says. "Kids like little things because they are little themselves. They probably like Pluto because they think it's not a full grown planet."

It turns out that they are quite right about that. They will get a chance to see for themselves just a little over a decade from now as we move down the bumpy road to Pluto.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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