18 December 2005
Pluto probe a bit closer to liftoff
BY JOHN KELLY
FLORIDA TODAY


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Pluto probe.? An artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft during its planned encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon. NASA continues to aim to launch the probe sometime before Feb. 14 despite a minor setback involving the rocket.


CAPE CANAVERAL - The world's first mission to Pluto took another step toward launch Saturday with the move of the New Horizons probe to Launch Complex 41, where it will be installed atop an Atlas 5 rocket.

NASA moved the interplanetary spacecraft in the dark early Saturday morning under tight security, though the reason had nothing to do with the probe's plutonium power source. The nuclear generator that will power the craft's systems will not be installed until about three days before the launch, now scheduled for no earlier than Jan. 17.

George Diller, a spokesman for the Kennedy Space Center, said the reason for moving the spaceship in darkness is to protect sensitive components from sunlight. Until Saturday, the probe was undergoing final preparations and inspections ina tightly-controlled payload facility at the space center.

NASA continues to aim to launch the probe sometime before Feb. 14 despite a minor setback involving the rocket. Lockheed Martin Corp. has discovered a problem with a propellant tank similar to the one to be flown with this Atlas 5, and NASA and the company decided extra time was needed for inspections.

The launch was set for Jan. 11, but the extra inspections mean liftoff can't happen until at least Jan. 17. If the probe launches that day, it will be sometime between 1:24 to 3:24 p.m. Eastern time.

Further delays are problematic because if the probe blasts off later in the launch window, it can take several years longer to complete the 4-billion-mile journey to Pluto. If the mission does not launch by Valentine's Day, the New Horizons probe will have to wait until 2007 to start its trip.

Contact Kelly at 242-3660 or jkelly@flatoday.net

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