20 January 2006
Safety officials relieved at launch


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  Atlas rises. An Atlas 5 rocket propels a plutonium-powered probe toward space on Thursday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Michael R. Brown, FLORIDA TODAY

A multi-agency team of radiation and emergency management experts fanned out over Florida's Space Coast Thursday, taking a collective deep breath as an Atlas 5 rocket propelled a plutonium-powered probe toward space.

The sigh of relief came at 40 seconds past 2 p.m.

That's when the 20-story rocket arced out over the Atlantic Ocean, eliminating the chance that a launch accident might cause a plutonium release that could threaten people in Brevard County.

"I jumped up and clicked my heels and said 'yee-ha,' and there was a round of clapping," said Randall Scott, a NASA Radiation Protection Officer at Kennedy Space Center. "But if we had needed to be called upon, we would have been prepared for a rapid response."

Mounted atop the Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 was NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.

Now cruising through space on the world's first mission to Pluto, the spacecraft is powered by a generator that converts heat from the natural decay of plutonium into electricity.

Government studies showed there was a one in 350 chance of a launch accident that would result in a release of plutonium.

The same studies showed there was a remote chance of an accident that would expose people in surrounding communities to radiation, increasing the chance that some might get cancer in the next 50 years.

Scott and other officials from NASA, the Department of Energy and other federal agencies spent two years preparing for the launch.

A team of about 120 people was put together to operate a widespread network of radiation monitors and execute an emergency management plan in the event of a launch accident.

The network included 11 state-of-the-art radiation monitors capable of detecting radiation levels in the air at various sites around the community and then instantaneously transmitting data back to officials in a* control center at KSC.

Sixteen field teams with detection equipment were deployed at KSC, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and surrounding communities. In addition, twenty-two detection devices were at fire stations throughout the county.

There were telephone and video hook-ups between the Radiation Control Center at KSC and the Brevard County Emergency Operations Center in Rockledge. The hook-ups would have enabled officials to quickly get word out to the public in the event of a launch accident.

On hand at the KSC Press Site were public affairs officers from NASA, the Energy Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Air Force's 45th Space Wing, the state of Florida and Brevard County.

Their job in the event of an accident would have been to distribute information to local, regional, national and international media covering the launch at KSC.

As it turned out, the launch went off without incident. But the multi-agency team nonetheless was prepared for the worst.

"It just shows you we had the first class, the cream of the crop, here," Scott said.

Contact Halvorson at 639-0576 or [email protected]

See also: other articles on New Horizons

20 January 2006
NASA Launches Spacecraft on the First Mission to Pluto
New York Times


The launch of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft
Gary I. Rothstein/European Pressphoto Agency

NASA launched the first space mission to Pluto yesterday as a powerful rocket hurled the New Horizons spacecraft on a nine-year, three-billion-mile journey to the edge of the solar system.  .

As it soared toward a 2007 rendezvous with Jupiter, whose powerful gravitational field will slingshot it on its way to Pluto, mission managers said radio communications confirmed that the 1,054-pound craft was in good health.

The $700 million mission began when a Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 rocket rose from a launching pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 2 p.m., almost an hour later than planned because of low clouds that obscured a clear view of the flight path by tracking cameras.

"We have ignition and liftoff of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on a decadelong voyage to visit the planet Pluto and then beyond," declared Bruce Buckingham, NASA's launching commentator.

Less than an hour later, all three stages of the booster rocket worked as planned, and the spacecraft separated from them and sprinted away toward deep space. The robot ship sped away at about 36,000 miles per hour, the fastest flight of any spacecraft sent from Earth, allowing it to pass the Moon in about nine hours.

"This is a historic day," said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., the mission's principal scientist and team leader.

Speaking at a news conference at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Dr. Stern said the timing assured that the New Horizons would arrive for its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015 - the 50th anniversary of the first flyby of Mars by the Mariner 4, the mission that began the exploration of the planets.

Yesterday's liftoff also paid homage to Pluto's discoverer, the astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh, who in 1930 became the only American to find a planet in the solar system. (He died at 90, in 1997.) His widow, Patricia Tombaugh, 93, and other family members were present at the cape, and some of his remains were among the commemorative items aboard the spacecraft.

"Some of Clyde's ashes are on their way to Pluto today," Dr. Stern said.

The New Horizons is to reach Jupiter's gravitational field in 13 months. The trip to Pluto will take eight more years, most of which the craft will spend in electronic "hibernation" to save power and wear on the equipment needed for its seven experiments.

The New Horizons is powered by a small plutonium-fired electric generator. Its instruments include three cameras, for visible-light, infrared and ultraviolet images, and three spectrometers to study the composition and temperatures of Pluto's thin atmosphere and surface features.

It also carries a University of Colorado dust counter, the first experiment to fly on a planetary mission that is entirely designed and operated by students. This is the only experiment that will not hibernate during the mission.

In addition to the two-hour delay, the launching was postponed twice in two days - on Tuesday by strong winds at the cape and on Wednesday by a storm that caused a power failure at the spacecraft's control center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. Mission planners had until Feb. 14 to launch the mission this year, but only until the end of this month to use the gravity boost from Jupiter, which will shorten the trip to Pluto by five years.

Once near its target, the New Horizons is to conduct about five months of studies, including a closest-approach dash that takes it within 6,200 miles of Pluto's surface and 16,800 miles from the planet's large moon, Charon. The craft will also study two smaller moons found late last year by the Hubble Space Telescope and any new features discovered while it is on its way, scientists said.

The mission is to continue past Pluto, possibly visiting large objects in the Kuiper Belt, an outer zone of the solar system that includes Pluto. The belt is made up of thousands of icy, rocky objects that include comets and small planets. Scientists believe that this material is left over from the creation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago and that studying it will provide clues to how the Sun and planets formed.

20 January 2006
Super Fast Spacecraft Zooms Toward Pluto
Washington Post
The Associated Press


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The fastest spacecraft ever launched began the first full day of its 3-billion mile journey to Pluto, where it will study the last unexplored planet and the mysterious icy area that surrounds it.

The New Horizons spacecraft blasted off aboard an Atlas V rocket Thursday afternoon in a spectacular start to the $700 million mission. Despite the speed _ it can reach 36,000 mph _ it will take 9 1/2 years to reach Pluto and the frozen, sunless reaches of the solar system.

An Atlas V rocket carrying the New Horizons spacecraft on a mission to the planet Pluto lifts off from launch pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006. It is estimated the spacecraft will reach Pluto by July 2015.

"It looked beautiful," said Ralph McNutt Jr. of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, one of the mission's scientists. "I was getting a little bit antsy."

The 1,054-pound spacecraft was loaded with seven instruments that will photograph the surfaces of Pluto and its large moon, Charon, and analyze Pluto's atmosphere. Two of the cameras, Alice and Ralph, are named for the bickering couple from TV's "The Honeymooners."

New Horizons also contained some of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930. His widow, Patricia Tombaugh, was in tears as she watched the launch from four mile away.

"I got emotional. I really did. I just got carried away," said Tombaugh, 93, of Las Cruces, N.M. "It was so beautiful and we've waited so long."

NASA had postponed the liftoff two straight days because of wind gusts at the launch pad and a power outage at the spacecraft's control center in Maryland.

Pluto is the solar system's most distant planet and the brightest body in a zone known as the Kuiper Belt, which is made up of thousands of icy, rocky objects, including tiny planets whose development was stunted for unknown reasons. Scientists believe studying those "planetary embryos" can help them understand how planets were formed.

Some astronomers question whether Pluto is technically a planet. Pluto is a celestial oddball _ an icy dwarf unlike the rocky planets of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars and the gaseous planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

"We're realizing just how much there is to the deep, outer solar system," said Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator. "I think it's exciting that textbooks have to be rewritten, over and over."

Because it was launched in January, the spacecraft will be able to use Jupiter's gravity as a sling to shave five years off the trip, allowing it to arrive as early as July 2015.

The probe, powered by 24 pounds of plutonium, will not land on Pluto but will photograph it, analyze its atmosphere and send data back across the solar system to Earth.

The launch went off without incident, to the relief of anti-nuclear activists who had feared an accident could scatter lethal radioactive material.

The probe will rely on the natural decay of the plutonium to generate electricity for its instruments. NASA and the Energy Department had put the chances of a launch accident that could release radiation at 1 in 350. As a precaution, the agencies brought in 16 mobile field teams that can detect radiation and 33 air samplers and monitors.

"Certainly there are feelings of relief that we didn't have to actually execute any of our contingency plans," said Bob Lay, emergency management director for surrounding Brevard County.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin said he had an answer for those who may question spending $700 million on the mission to a place in space too far away to observe in any detail from Earth.

"Of what value do you think it might be to be able to study the primordial constituents from which the solar system and all the planets and we, ourselves, were formed?" Griffin said.


On the Net:

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

Nuclear protesters: http://www.space4peace.org


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