NASA has chosen the Lockheed Martin Atlas V rocket, offered by International Launch Services (ILS), to launch the Pluto New Horizons mission in January 2006.
The mission as proposed is a scientific reconnaissance of Pluto and its moon, Charon.
The selected vehicle is the Atlas V 551 configuration, with a 5-meter fairing and multiple solid rocket motors. This is the most powerful version of the Atlas rocket family, with a lift capability ranging up to 19,100 pounds to geosynchronous orbit. There have been three Atlas V missions since the rocket debuted last August, with the most recent being the Rainbow 1 launch last week, on an Atlas V 521 vehicle.
The space agency awarded the mission to ILS under the terms of the NASA Launch Services contract signed in 2000. This agreement was designed to be the primary way for NASA to procure launch services on the highly reliable Atlas rocket through 2010. Atlas vehicles have achieved the phenomenal record of 100 percent success in 66 consecutive flights. NASA last year selected an Atlas vehicle to launch the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in August 2005.
"We are thrilled that NASA chose the Atlas V vehicle to launch the Pluto New Horizons mission," said ILS President Mark Albrecht. "Such high-value scientific missions require the time-critical and reliable access to space that Atlas has proven it can deliver."
Albrecht noted that the Atlas V is the only American medium-to-heavy-lift vehicle serving both the government and commercial markets. "The award of the Pluto New Horizons mission further solidifies the Atlas V business base with a mix of government and commercial missions, demonstrating the continued confidence in Atlas V by both communities," Albrecht said.
Since 1959, Atlas vehicles have flown 124 missions for NASA, including the majority of all U.S. interplanetary spacecraft. Last year, the Atlas IIA vehicle successfully lofted two Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) for NASA.
The launch services contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services, the contracting affiliate of International Launch Services. ILS is a joint venture formed in 1995 to market the Lockheed Martin Atlas launch vehicle and the Proton vehicle built by Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Russia.
The Atlas rockets and Centaur upper stages are built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company at facilities in Denver, Colo.; Harlingen, Texas; and San Diego, Calif. Atlas launch operations are conducted at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and Vandenberg Air force Base, Calif.