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Pluto or bust?

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10:04pm, July 22, 2002

A new National Research Council report may revive plans to send a spacecraft to explore Pluto and its neighborhood. Even though NASA eliminated funding for it in its 2003 budget, the report recommends that the agency give top priority to a major Pluto mission. The Washington, D.C.–based council issued the NASA-sponsored study on July 11.

Pluto is the only planet in the solar system that a spacecraft hasn't directly observed. Astronomers continue to debate whether Pluto actually is the solar system's smallest planet or the largest member of the Kuiper belt, a reservoir of primitive, icy objects beyond the orbit of Neptune (SN: 6/9/01, p. 360: Nine Planets, or Eight?).

Pluto is now rapidly receding from the sun, and some astronomers have argued that if a spacecraft isn't launched within the next few years, the planet will be completely frozen over by the time a probe arrives. Current spacecraft would take about a decade to get to the planet

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