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Pluto-bound spacecraft may face deadly scenario, according to NASA

Officials at NASA say a Pluto-bound spacecraft could face a barrage of small Kuiper objects that may tear apart the billion-dollar spacecraft before it reaches its target near the outer edge of the solar system.

In a study released by the U.S. space agency, officials say they are now adjusting the Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft, which is likely to face “shards from collisions between [Pluto’s moons] and small Kuiper objects.” Scientists warn that the spacecraft could face small shards of rock that may leave the spacecraft pocketed and riddled with holes that could jeopardize one of NASA’s most ambitious missions.

NASA officials now say they are testing the alternate courses for the New Horizons spacecraft that would steer it out of harm’s way, while at the same time allowing the probe to continue to explore the outer reaches of the solar system and Pluto’s thin atmosphere.

The team says that with the Horizon spacecraft moving at a rate of more than 33,500 mph, “a collision with a single pebble, or even a millimeter-sized grain, could cripple or destroy New Horizons,” said New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “We need to steer clear of any debris zones around Pluto.”

Although the findings reveal that Pluto is a trove of treasures worth exploring, “we’re worried that Pluto and its system of moons, the object of our scientific affection, may actually be a bit of a black widow,” Stern noted. “We’ve come to appreciate that those moons, as well as those not yet discovered, act as debris generators populating the Pluto system with shards from collisions between those moons and small Kuiper Belt objects.”

“While placing New Horizons farther out would still accomplish the primary objectives we have for it, it would not exceed them. On our current path, we’d get imaging resolutions down to about a tenth of a kilometer (330 feet) for some places on Pluto, but if we fly substantially far away, we’d meet the 1-kilometer (3,300 feet) objective we had.”

While some contingency plans are better than others, “half a loaf is better than no load,” added Stern.

The New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission, launched in January 2006 and due to arrive at Pluto in 2015, is NASA’s latest attempt to better understand the icy worlds at the edge of our solar system. The mission will visit one or more Kuiper Belt Objects beyond Pluto. Speaking Tuesday, Stern noted that the mission is likely to draw attention to the solar system’s outer planet.

“We want people to understand just how interesting and how nail-biting New Horizons’ mission might be. This is part of the excitement of first-time exploration, of going to a new frontier,” says Stern. “Sending New Horizons on a suicide mission does no one any good. We’re very much of the mind to accomplish as much as we can, and not losing it all recklessly. Better to turn an A+ to an A- than get an F by overreaching.”

New Horizons is currently about 1,000 days away and 730 million miles from closest approach to Pluto, according to NASA. The progress of New Horizons toward its distant targets can be followed at the New Horizons Mission website.