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Mon, Dec 19, 2005

Plutonium-Powered Pluto Probe Put On Pad

Liftoff Scheduled After Jan. 17

The world's first-ever mission to Pluto is closer to launch as the New Horizons probe was moved to Launch Complex 41 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The interplanetary spacecraft was moved to the pad -- where it will be installed atop its Atlas V booster rocket -- under heavy security Saturday morning.

The probe was moved in the dark, said KSC spokesman George Diller to USA Today, in order to protect the probe's sensitive componentry from sunlight. The security had nothing to do with the probe's plutonium power source, which will not be installed until just before its expected late-January launch date.

As was previously reported in Aero-News, the New Horizons probe was slightly damaged when the strong winds of Hurricane Wilma forced open the specially-designed hangar door protecting the 200-ft. tall probe from the elements.

While crews quickly fixed the storm damage, another problem has since been discovered -- this time by Lockheed Martin. A problem with a propellant tank similar to the one to be flown on New Horizon's booster has delayed the target launch date approximately one week, to allow for additional inspections.

If all goes well, the probe will liftoff sometime between January 17 and February 14 -- when the launch window closes on the probe's 10-year journey to the furthest planet from the sun in Earth's solar system.

Should the mission not launch by Valentine's Day, crews will have to wait until 2007 to launch New Horizons.

FMI: www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html

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