January 17, 2006

Winds delay launch of NASA’s Pluto probe

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA on Tuesday delayed
the liftoff of its first probe to Pluto because of high winds
and rescheduled the launch for Wednesday, officials at the U.S.
space agency said.

The piano-sized New Horizons probe had been due to take off
on a massive unmanned Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air
Force Station between 1:24 p.m. and 3:23 p.m. (1824 GMT and
2023 GMT).

But launch commentator Bruce Buckingham said ground level
winds at the Florida launchpad exceeded safety limits.

"The winds were just too strong and they kept us on the
ground today," Buckingham said.

The next opportunity will be between 1:16 p.m. and 3:15
p.m. (1816 GMT to 2015 GMT) on Wednesday, but weather forecasts
were not very favorable.

The U.S. space agency has a window until February 14 to
launch the satellite, but postponements could add up to five
years to the journey. The earliest that New Horizons can reach
Pluto, if it launches in time to slingshot itself off the
gravity field of Jupiter, is July 2015.

As Pluto is too far from the sun for the spacecraft to tap
solar energy, it will draw power from the natural decay of 24
pounds (11 kg) of plutonium pellets that are contained in an
on-board generator.

Twenty-four previous space missions have used radioactive
plutonium as power sources, and NASA says the risks of
contamination in the case of an accident during launch are
minimal. More than two dozen radiation sensors and 16 teams of
safety experts have been deployed to monitor the launch.

The $700-million project will be NASA's first mission to
Pluto, the only unexplored planet in the solar system.

Pluto is the largest and best known of a relatively new
type of planetary body called a Kuiper Belt object.

The Kuiper Belt is located beyond Neptune's orbit, which is
30 times farther away from the sun than Earth. It contains
frozen objects believed to be leftover remains from the
formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

"It is fantastically interesting to me to have a chance,
maybe within my lifetime, for scientists to see up-close what
those objects look like and to begin our reconnaissance of that
region of space," NASA administrator Michael Griffin told
reporters on Tuesday.