Lost Computer Disks at Los Alamos Could Delay NASA Mission to Pluto

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Last month some computer disks containing classified were misplaced at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). Employees have been suspended and work on all LANL projects has been halted.

Among the projects affected: production by the Department of Energy of the nuclear fuel source for NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto.

The power source - a radiothermal generator (RTG) - needs to be ready no later than December 2004, thirteen months before the planned January 2006 launch. This schedule is required so that the RTG can be loaded onto the spacecraft and checked out.

If this shutdown continues at Los Alamos and the December RTG delivery date is missed, this could cost the mission to be delayed. Arrival at Pluto would slip by 4 years. This arrival date slip would result from a one year wait for a new launch window on Earth, plus the fact that the planned Jupiter Gravity Assist will no longer be possible thus adding 3 more years to the trip out to Pluto.

This longer mission would also increase flight time - thus increasing overall mission risk, and would also result in the loss of the scientific measurements now planned for the Jupiter flyby.

Earlier estimates of the cost impact of such a delay are in the range of $100 million. In a time when NASA budget battles continue, and the fact that the funding history of this mission has had its own ups and downs, such a delay could put the entire mission at risk.


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