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Pluto probe could give clues to origin of life

Nic Fleming/London Telegraph | December 27 2005

Man will take a bold step towards the final frontier of the Solar System with the expected launch of the first mission to Pluto and beyond next month.

The piano-sized New Horizons probe will travel faster than any previous spacecraft on its journey to the planet farthest from the Sun, its moon Charon and the mysterious, icy Kuiper Belt.

Relatively little is known about the ninth planet and scientists expect the £290 million Nasa mission to provide important clues to the origins of the Solar System and possibly to life on Earth.

They will have to be patient, however. New Horizons will travel at 26,700mph over four billion miles to the only remaining planet that has not been observed at close quarters. It will arrive in the summer of 2015 at the earliest.

Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator, said: "Exploring Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is like conducting an archaeological dig into the history of the outer Solar System, a place where we can peek into the ancient era of planetary formation.

"Everything we know for sure about Pluto is on about three 3 x 5 file cards. We don't even know what we don't know. That leaves a lot of room for discovery."

While Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are called the rocky planets and Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are defined as gas giants, Pluto and its largest moon Charon are known as "ice dwarfs".

Pluto is the only planet whose orbit takes it into the Kuiper Belt, a flattened doughnut-shaped belt of icy, comet-like bodies in the outer Solar System.

Pluto is so different from the other planets that many astronomers say it should not be described as a planet but as one of a new class of bodies called Kuiper Belt Objects.

The Solar System was formed 4.5 billion years ago when a great cloud of gas and dust began spinning at growing speed and temperature until chunks of material were flung together to form the Sun and the planets. KBOs are the left-over building materials.

Because Pluto's surface temperature is around -230C, its chemical and structural make-up should have changed far less than that of the inner Solar System bodies.

Studying it more closely should tell us about the material from which Earth was formed.

Observation of its atmosphere may shed light on how quickly the hydrogen originally present in Earth's atmosphere escaped into space. That is important information in any attempt to simulate the environment in which life began.

Some scientists believe that bodies originating in the Kuiper Belt and having an impact on Earth were important sources of our water, atmosphere and the complex hydrocarbons that provided the building blocks of life.

When New Horizons eventually arrives, it will conduct a five-month study of the geology and geo-morphology of Pluto and Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures and examine Pluto's atmospheric composition and structure.

The launch, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, will take place between Jan 11 and Feb 14.

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