January 12, 2006

Spacecraft to Pluto to Carry 435,000 Names

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Cliff Friedman's name may go far in Dallas real estate circles, but that doesn't come close to the 3 billion-mile trip it will begin in a few weeks.

Friedman's name is one of about 435,000 names placed on a compact disc that will be in the New Horizons spacecraft when it launches from Cape Canaveral this week on a mission to Pluto and the outer edges of the solar system.

"My wife thinks it should be put out a little bit further," said Friedman, 48, a Dallas real estate attorney.

The inclusion of names in the spacecraft is part of a public relations campaign to generate interest in the launch to the last unexplored planet in the solar system.

When it reaches Pluto as early as 2015, the spacecraft will study the ninth planet, its large moon, Charon, as well as two other moons only discovered last year. The $700 million mission also should provide scientists with a better understanding of the Kuiper Belt, a mysterious disc-shaped region that lies beyond Neptune at the outer limits of the planetary system.

Other missions have employed a similar P.R. trick.

A small DVD containing more than 616,000 handwritten signatures was in the Cassini orbiter on its mission to Saturn in 1997. Discs with names also were sent aboard the two Mars Rovers and the Deep Impact spacecraft on its successful mission to collide with a comet.

"This is a great way to get people involved," said Michael Buckley, a spokesman for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, which is managing the spacecraft's operations.

Those interested were able to submit their name to the mission's Web site and print out a certificate that read in part, "Thank you for joining the first mission to the last planet!" The submission deadline was in September.

Friedman knew about the mission since he is friends with its principal investigator, Alan Stern, whose brother is Friedman's law partner.

"Knowing about the mission ... I thought it would be a neat thing to have my name go out there, out to the great beyond," he said. "I think it is a great way to get more interest and involve more people in a mission like this."

About Pluto

Here are some surprising details about NASA's mission to Pluto, set for a Tuesday launch.

-- New Horizons will be the fastest spacecraft ever, traveling nearly 100 times the speed of a jetliner. It should reach Earth's moon in nine hours, Jupiter in 13 months and Pluto in nine years.

-- The nuclear fuel powering the spacecraft produces less energy than is used by two 100-watt lightbulbs.

-- Once the piano-sized probe reaches Jupiter, it will use that huge planet as a slingshot for an added boost to the outer edge of the solar system.

-- New Horizons has two cameras named Ralph and Alice for the bickering couple from television's "The Honeymooners." This trip, though, is to Pluto, not "To the moon, Alice!"

-- Discovered in 1930, Pluto is the smallest planet in the solar system and the only planet classified as an "ice dwarf." It has three moons.

-- Pluto is located in the Kuiper Belt, a mysterious region that lies beyond Neptune at the outer limits of the planetary system. Scientists believe the Kuiper Belt holds clues as to how the outer solar system was formed.


On the Net:

New Horizons Mission at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu