Winter 2001

Allegheny Observatory
by Mike Frost

As you probably know by now, I have a job that takes me all over the world, from South Wales to New South Wales.  In 2000 I have spent a considerable amount of time in North America, working at steel mills in Sharon (Pennsylvania), Hamilton (Ontario) and lately at US Steel's Mon Valley works in West Mifflin, which is a suburb of Pittsburgh. 

When I arrived in Pittsburgh, I had an astronomical goal; to visit the Allegheny Observatory, which lies only four miles to the north of Pittsburgh city centre.  I had heard about the observatory in a talk on American observatories by David Graham (a well-known planetary observer) who spoke of the Allegheny observatory in the same breath as the Yerkes, Lick and Mt Palomar observatories; distinguished company!  So I was keen to visit it.
There are guided tours of the Observatory on Thursday and Friday nights, booking in advance. I reserved a place along with one my colleagues from work.  When we arrived, it was still daylight, and we had chance to take a quick look round the outside of the observatory, which stands on the top of a hill in what is now a small suburban park.  The observatory is a solid looking construction, with stone columns for decoration, and the names of famous astronomers, international and local, inscribed around the walls.  There are three domes, the largest in the middle.
The observing party was thirty strong, including several young families.  We talked to a couple who had grown up in the neighbourhood and played in the park, but had never been inside the observatory; I think they were surprised and flattered that I had planned my visit from England!
There was time to kill whilst the sun went down, and so we were given a talk on the history of the observatory by one of the team of volunteers who run the observatory tours.  These people come from all walks of life, sharing a common love of astronomy.
The Allegheny Observatory was first conceived in 1859, when the spectacular Donati's comet caused the same sort of stir that Hale-Bopp provoked three years ago.  At that time Pittsburgh was a boomtown, thriving in the industrial revolution much as Manchester and Sheffield were on this side of the Atlantic.  Local businessmen, flush with newly acquired wealth, were keen to leave monuments for posterity; the richest of them, Andrew Carnegie, founded a superb museum of natural history in Pittsburgh, as well as endowing libraries all over the English-speaking world.
In the case of the Allegheny observatory, the original intention was to build an observatory for casual use by subscribers.  A thirteen-inch refractor was commissioned, at that time the third-largest in the United States, from Henry Fitz of New York, and an observatory built for it on Northside hill, closer to Pittsburgh city centre.  However, it was soon realised that the best way of making use of the telescope was to donate it to the Western University of Pittsburgh (now University of Pittsburgh) for scientific research.
Fortunately, the observatory fell into good hands.  The first director was Samuel Pierpoint Langley, who was virtually unknown when he arrived in Pittsburgh, but left to become the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, at that time the highest scientific post in America. Langley was a more than capable director, and an innovative researcher (he invented the bolometer to measure solar radiation), but perhaps his chief claim to fame was his experiments in heavier than air flight.  Samuel Langley flew a primitive unmanned steam-powered airplane seven years before the Wright brothers.  Its launch was catapult assisted, and it is doubtful that the engine he used would have been powerful enough carry a human being. Nonetheless, in the Allegheny Observatory, I think they feel that the wrong people get the credit for being first into flight.
Langley also made a wise choice of assistant, in John Brashear.  Brashear was originally a millwright in one of Pittsburgh's steel mills; a job that requires little formal education but teaches invaluable practical skills and resourcefulness.  It was Brashear's ambition to build his telescope; having no money he acquired some glass and ground his own lens, which, one day he brought, unsolicited, to the observatory and showed to Langley.
Langley was astounded by the quality of the workmanship.  Langley encouraged Brashear's lens making and introduced him to William Thaw, a local industrialist, who provided Brashear with his own large optical shop, where he could do justice to his skills.  Brashear eventually became (interim) director of the observatory, and it is clear that he is still regarded with immense affection by the staff of the observatory.
A life size statue of John Brashear stands in the main corridor of the observatory, and it is the tradition to brush his foot for luck as you pass.  We stood in the corridor, listening to Brashear's story, with the kids playing around his statue, and I think John Brashear would have approved of the scene.
Pittsburgh was not an ideal site for an observatory.  Sprawling heavy industry had created horrendous pollution.  Langley made the most of the situation and concentrated on solar observations.  Additionally his skills were required for timekeeping, not so much for maritime purposes (as in London) as for the railroads of Pennsylvania.  Langley devised the Allegheny System of timekeeping, which kept the railroads moving smoothly; the Observatory still have the clocks which were the base of the system.
Langley's successor, James Edward Keeler, was a planetary observer.  His main accomplishment was to observe the rings of Saturn with a spectroscope, proving that rings did not move with a constant angular velocity and so could not be a solid body.  Instead, he showed that they moved according to Kepler's laws, strong evidence that the rings consisted of myriad small bodies.
When Brashear was director, he decided that the site in Northside was unsuitable for scientific observation.  By this time a very capable organizer, he persuaded David C. Park, a steel magnate, to purchase the Riverview Park site and build the current-day observatory.  Once the project was under way, wealthy industrialists fell over each other to provide funding for the observatory, with some extraordinary results; the corridors are lined with the finest marble, for example, and Brashear's statue is overlooked by a stained-glass window depicting Urania, the Greek muse of astronomy.  The new building was dedicated in 1912, by which time Brashear had been followed as observatory director by F.L.O. Wadsworth and Frank Schlesinger.
Schlesinger initiated a program that became the major work of the observatory throughout the twentieth century, namely high precision astrometry, or measurement of star positions.  The Allegheny Observatory has been a world-leader in this for most of the last hundred years.  There are several aspects to the astrometric program; the measurement of stellar parallaxes for nearby stars, providing a direct estimate of their distance from us; the investigation of the orbits of binary stars; and, most perhaps excitingly, the detection of wobbles in stellar motion which betray the existence of extra-solar planets.  The Allegheny team was able to discover a planet in orbit around Lalande 21185.
Unfortunately, in the last year the Allegheny Observatory has faced cuts in funding, resulting in the loss of two thirds of the research staff.  The August edition of Sky and Telescope stated that research had ceased at the observatory in April, but I'm glad to say that a letter in the October edition from the present director, George Gatewood, declared that the obituary was premature, and that the astrometric research program continues.
The Allegheny Observatory struggles to compete with modern state of the art observatories, both on telescope size and seeing conditions, and astrometric satellites such as Hipparcos deliver measurement accuracy that is near impossible to achieve terrestrially.  However, what the Allegheny Observatory does possess is an unbroken and consistent archive of observations stretching back nearly a century; a resource which space-based observatories will not match for a long time to come.  For long-term astrometry, continuity of observations is vital!
All three domes of the observatory still contain telescopes.  The smallest dome contains the 13 inch Fitz-Clark refractors (the observatory's original instrument, refigured by Alvan Clark); then there is the 31 inch Keeler memorial reflector, used for binary star studies. Finally, the largest dome houses the 30 inch (0.79 m) Thaw refractor, the 5th largest refractor in the world, which is used for the professional observing program.  This was in use the night we visited, so instead we got to observe through the 13 inch refractor.
As often happens on open to the public nights the program was not aimed at experienced observers; also it took time for everybody to take their turn at observing; but I didn't really mind, it's always good to see the observers of tomorrow taking their turns to look. The sky was clear, if a little hazy, and there was of course a tremendous amount of sky-glow from the city; the moon was new and none of the major planets was visible (they ignored my request to take a look at Uranus).  Instead we focused on Epsilon Lyrae, the double-double star, which was a treat to look at, with its two pairs of stars, at right angles to each other.  Next came the Ring Nebula (described, with a little license, as the remnant of an exploding star).  This was also neat, looking very like a smoke ring, but I didn't spot the central star in my brief stint at the eyepiece.  The only real disappointment was the final target, the globular cluster M13; in fact, I'm not sure if that was what we were looking at! (maybe somebody knocked the scope)
That, unfortunately, was the end of the observing session.  Most of the audience were getting restless, and one misguided soul switched on a hand torch so she could see what she was looking at!  Most people drifted away, but the guide had one final sight to show the few of us who remained.
He took us down into the basement, into the pier of the 30-inch telescope mounting.  In a small crypt, built into in the base of the telescope, is the final resting place of John Brashear and his wife and James Keeler and his son.  The memorial is very much in keeping with the Allegheny Observatory; one felt it was a place that was loved by the people who worked there, past and present.  If you are ever in the Pittsburgh area, try to take the opportunity to visit!

Check out the Allegheny Observatory website at  http://www.pitt.edu/~aobsvtry

Two notes

the first from Carl Sagan's book  "A Pale Blue Dot"
by Steve Payne

Look again at that dot.  That's here.  That's home.  That's us.  On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.  The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and 
forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of 
our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 
Carl Sagan   (1934-1996)

Saturday, November 4th Risky Asteroid Comes and Goes

One day after announcing that an asteroid-like object had a 1-in-500 chance of striking Earth in 2030, astronomers have concluded that it will actually miss our planet by a wide margin.  Designated 2000 SG344, the asteroid is very faint, currently magnitude 24, and thus only 30 to 70 meters (100 to 230 feet) across.  This was the first asteroid found to have collision probability high enough to rate a 1 on the 10-step Torino impact-hazard scale.  However, once a pre-discovery image turned up from May 1999, revised calculations by a team of Italian dynamicists showed that the object will come no closer than about 5,200,000 km on September 22nd, 2030. 
The asteroid was discovered on September 29th by Robert J. Whiteley and David J. Tholen using the 3.6-meter Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea.  Tholen and Whiteley have been systematically searching for such Earth-crossers before sunrise and after sunset in areas of the sky relatively close to the Sun. It was very, very obvious that this was a near-Earth object, says Whiteley.  It's not clear that this really is an asteroid, however.  Its orbit is so similar to Earth's that Whiteley and Tholen may have inadvertently discovered a rocket body in orbit around the Sun.  During the Apollo program, five Saturn IV-B stages ended up in solar orbit.  The year 1971 also saw the launch of the Soviet Union's Mars 2 and 3 interplanetary probes.  Personally I think it is a bit of space junk, says Marsden.  However, we may not learn its true nature for a very long time.  Steven J. Ostro (JPL) failed to make radar contact with 2000 SG344 yesterday using the Arecibo radio telescope, and it will not be this close to Earth again until 2028. 

Six years ago I visited the Foredown Tower in Portslade, Sussex.  This is a science center in an old water tower on the edge of the South Downs.  Its central attraction is a camera obscura, literally a dark chamber in which is projected a view of the outside world.  This might not sound very exciting, but I was captivated by the images, which somehow manage to capture the outside world more vividly than simply looking out of the window (it probably has something to do with the reduced light levels, which allow the observer's eye pupils to open wider).  Additionally, I hit it off with the chief ranger at Foredown Tower, Mike Feist, who told me that he was trying to locate all the other camera obscuras around the world.  This sounded an interesting research project, and for the next few years I chased down various leads.  It helped having an Internet connection, also traveling a lot.
Every few weeks, Mike would issue a Camera Obscura Update newsletter to a small (but distinguished!) readership.  The scope of the magazine widened to include historical camera obscuras and any other tidbits that came the way of the editor.  Earlier this year Mike sent out Issue 87 and announced that Issue 88 was to be the final edition.  This was not because of lack of interest but because we had stopped finding new information, the initial aim of locating all the camera obscuras in the world was essentially complete.
Mike tidied up loose ends with an article in the BAA Journal, Astronomy and the Camera Obscura (J.B.A.A Vol 110 No 1, Feb 2000).  I've written on camera obscuras before, but I now take the opportunity to finish off my researches by telling you. . . .

Twenty Things You Never Knew About Camera Obscuras
by Mike Frost

1.   The Foredown Tower camera obscura was originally the centerpiece of the Gateshead garden festival.  Perhaps you might remember the garden festivals, which were an imaginative attempt at inner-city renewal by Michael Heseltine in the nineteen eighties.  There was also a camera obscura at the Liverpool garden festival.  I eventually discovered the lens from this camera obscura in Boneswaldesthorne's Tower on the city walls of Chester, where it formed part of the Chester city museum.  It sat almost on top of the railway line into Chester and was thus one of the few camera obscuras that you could also use for trainspotting (regrettably, I hear, it's not currently open to the public).

2.   The nearest camera obscura to Coventry is in Stratford-on-Avon, and forms part of the Cox's Yard museum of Stratford life, an establishment that is to be commended for not once mentioning a certain playwright.  The camera pans automatically round a near 360° degree panorama of Stratford, and is unusual for the projected image being transmitted by television to the screen on which it is displayed to the public. Which rather spoils the point of a camera obscura to project the outside view directly, without electronic assistance.  (Thanks to Vaughan for drawing my attention to the Cox's Yard camera)

3.   The other great attraction of the Stratford camera is that it has a brewpub attached - a trend to be encouraged.  But it isn't the only camera obscura to appear on a pub sign - there is also the 19th century camera obscura in the tower at Jersey Marine, in South Wales.  The tower is derelict now but the pub next door re-opened a few years ago.  But I'm sure you remember all this from my article A Tale of Two Towers in MIRA 41.  You might remember me commenting on the uplifting motto brave heart until death which appears on the ruins of what I thought was a railway siding.  Actually, this turned out to be the Victorian version of a squash court.  Which shows how thorough my research is!

4.   You might also remember my piece on the Pretoria camera obscura (MIRA 49), which I had the good fortune to visit when I was working in the Transvaal two years ago.  The only other known camera obscura in Africa is in the de Beers museum in Grahamstown, in South Africa's Cape Province.  But neither of these cameras is very good for observing elephants.  To do that, you would do better to visit the camera obscura at Dudley Zoo, which is situated next to the elephant enclosure.  Unfortunately the camera doesn't open very often, as it has been vandalised in the past.  This is a common problem with camera obscuras, which really need a curator to operate them properly.

5.   Of course, you can view a large white  elephant by visiting the camera obscura at the Old Royal Observatory in Greenwich, which has a view of the Millennium Dome.  The consensus of the nation seems to be that the Dome is worth seeing, but not its contents!  The Greenwich camera obscura is a pretty good contender for the best view from a camera obscura in Britain; other finalists must be the Outlook Tower in the middle of Edinburgh, and the Bristol camera obscura, overlooking Brunel's elegant suspension bridge across the Clifton gorge.  Overseas, the San Francisco camera obscura at must be a strong candidate for the world's best vista, across Ocean Bay, and Pretoria's view is very striking when the Jacaranda trees are in full bloom.

6.   Camera Obscuras have featured in at least two movies.  Perhaps the best known is A Matter of Life and Death, a 1946 film by the distinguished British directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.  It stars David Niven as a pilot who nearly dies in a plane crash and believes that he has cheated death and now has to argue his case to stay on Earth instead of the after-life.  The camera obscura, featured at the beginning of the film, perhaps is meant to foreshadow the all-seeing view from another reality.  A Matter of Life and Death was nominated as one of the twenty best British films of the century in a recent poll.

7.   By contrast, Addicted to Love, a 1997 movie starring Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick, is a rather tasteless comedy thriller of little merit. Broderick plays a jilted astronomer who uses a camera obscura to spy on his ex-girlfriend, who has moved into a New York apartment with Meg Ryan's ex-boyfriend.  The opening minutes are a strong contender for the most astronomically ludicrous scenes in movie history (and let's face it, they are up against some strong contenders). Broderick, at his telescope, announces that Alpha Orionis (Rigel!) is about to go supernova. Yeah, sometime in the next hundred million years says his boss sardonically.  No, this Thursday! counters Broderick.  Next thing, we see a picture of the Whirlpool galaxy with a supernova burning bright.  See, I told you! exclaims Broderick at the eyepiece - and then we find out that they are observing in the daytime!  ARGGGGHHHHHH! I think I'll sit down and take a rest now, if you don't mind

8.   Speaking of movies: - you might think that Performance, the cult sixties movie starring Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg and James Fox, would have nothing whatever to do with camera obscuras.  And you'd be right.  But the director of that movie, Donald Cammell, was born in the Outlook Tower, which houses the Edinburgh camera obscura, of which his father was the proprietor.  If anyone can be said to have lived his life through a lens, it's Donald Cammell.  Born under a camera, a director of several quirky movies, he committed suicide by shooting himself in August 1996 - and then asked for a mirror so that he could observe his own death!

9.   Someone else you might have heard of who has an interest in camera obscuras, is Terry Jones, of Monty Python's Flying Circus fame.  He has a camera obscura in his house in Surrey.  In fact, there are several privately owned camera obscuras in Britain.  One astronomically famous owner was Horace Dall, who also built camera obscuras for several other people.  Dall's own camera obscura, whose location was unknown to us for some time, is still in private ownership, although the present owner wishes to remain anonymous.

10.   Jackie Griggs, an art student, built herself a camera obscura as her final year project.  It has formed part of displays in exhibitions in Bury Art Gallery and Harewood House.  The last time I heard, Jackie's camera obscura was for sale, priced at four thousand pounds ono.  She tried selling it to me, on the one occasion I met her, but I had to explain that I don't even have room for the possessions I own, let alone the ones I haven‘t yet bought.  Another artist, Chris Drury, builds cloud chambers, simple buildings in forests and other remote locations, where the zenithal view is projected through a hole in the ceiling onto a viewing table.

11.   Type the words camera obscura into an Internet search engine, and you'll come up with loads of references to a journal of feminist literary criticism bearing the name camera obscura; also to a rock band from Arizona who call themselves after the dark chamber.  I was hoping to collect headlines along the lines of Camera Obscura in drugs bust or Camera Obscura more popular than Spice Girls, but unfortunately the band have not yet obliged.

12.   Many genuine camera obscuras feature on the Internet, usually as part of town tourist guides.  Aberystwyth, Dumfries, Edinburgh, Hainichen (Germany), Cadiz (Spain) and San Francisco all do this.  There are a small number of web pages devoted to camera obscuras - two, in fact, and one of them is my home page.  The other is much better.  It's written by Jack and Beverly Wilgus of Maryland, who made a camera obscura tour of Britain a few years ago, and published an entertaining account of their travels.  Check it out at  www.brightbytes.com/cosite/cohome.html or follow the links from the C&WAS home page to my home page, where I link to the Wilgus home page from my camera obscura gallery.

13.   Favourite quotes heard by the staff at the Edinburgh camera obscura:-
How long has the picture been in colour?
Gee, is that Norway? (looking across the Firth of Forth towards Dunfermline)
It's really quite dull, isn't it from a visitor wearing sunglasses
Is this the castle? from a confused visitor at the front desk.

14.   The Edinburgh camera obscura staff also report accidentally encountering nude rooftop sunbathers during their camera obscura tour of the city.  At the camera obscura in the air museum at Middle Wallop, Hampshire, the staff, demonstrating the camera to the local Women's Institute, focused in on a mysterious twinkling, to discover a workman relieving himself.  Which brings a whole new interpretation to twinkle, twinkle, little star.

15.   The most distant object ever observed by a camera obscura is the Andromeda Galaxy, which George Keene, of Altadeena, California managed to spot with his home-based camera obscura.  Finding faint objects on the projection screen can be very difficult, besides, most camera obscuras are built to observe the horizon rather than the zenith.  For brighter astronomical objects, detail can be resolved by using a high-powered viewer to inspect the projected image more closely.  Horace Dall used his camera obscura to observe the Moon, Venus and Jupiter, as has Mike Feist.  There are camera obscuras at the Astronomy Centre in Todmorden, W. Yorks, and the Powys County Observatory in Dyfed, Wales.

16.   Of course, there is one very bright astronomical object that is ideal for viewing with a camera obscura - our Sun.  Projection is the safest way to observe the Sun, and if you project the image onto your hand, you can feel how much heat is generated.  At Foredown Tower, the staff project the Sun onto a black card mounted on a turntable, which they then start spinning: this dramatically shows up sunspots, which of course do not spin with the card.  The camera obscura at the museum in Dumfries was originally built to observe the Sun with, and many of the earliest camera obscuras were specifically built as solar observatories.

17.   There were no camera obscuras under the path of last year's solar eclipse; but Foredown Tower was just able to get a view of the partial solar eclipse in October 1996, when the clouds permitted it!  Hopes are high for observing a significant solar event in 2004 - the transit of Venus across the solar disk.  Such transits are very rare; the last one was in 1882, and the one previous to thst, in 1872, could only be seen from the southern oceans.  Nevertheless, it was observed by a camera obscura, which was specially erected on the glacial, windswept island of Kerguelen in the southern Indian Ocean.  This has to be the most remote camera obscura ever constructed.  Kerguelen is so remote that I haven't been there.  Yet.

18.   Transits of Mercury, although still rare, are rather more frequent than transits of Venus.  The last few were on 7th November 1960, 9th May 1970, 10th November 1973, 13th November 1986, 6th November 1993 and 15th November 1999.  Horace Dall observed the first of these with his camera obscura (see Patrick Moore's 1975 book, Practical Astronomy for details).  Transits of Mercury can only occur around 7th May and 9th November, with November predominating.  As we get closer to the 2004 transit of Venus, I dare say I'll write something about transits - this gives me about four years to figure out what's going on!
19. Apart from at the museum in Middle Wallop, camera obscuras have had military roles, primarily as target spotters for gunnery ranges. There was a camera at the air force base at Cardington, Bedfordshire, home of the immense hangers where the R101 and other airships were kept (some of you might remember a talk by a friend of mine, Steve Derbyshire, who worked for the Met Office and flew his own barrage balloon from the Cardington hangars).  Other military camera obscuras were used to lay minefields and to observe shipping.

20.   There are also lots of camera obscuras in science centres around the world.  In England, aside from the camera obscura in Foredown Tower, there are also camera obscuras in Manchester's museum of science and technology and the Curioxity science centre in Oxford. At Techniquest, Cardiff's science centre, they had plans to build a binocular camera obscura, using polarized images.  I'm really not sure how this was meant to work, but when I last called there, they hadn't done anything about building it!

I think that's enough!  Attached is the definitive list (as of late 2000) of all camera obscuras ever known.  Please let me know if you ever find out about any others!

News from the  Jet Propulsion Laboratory

"Where am I?" NASA's Blackjack Receiver knows that and more.

While an ordinary global positioning system (GPS) receiver uses information carried by radio signals from a constellation of GPS satellites to calculate its position, NASA's BlackJack GPS receiver looks at the radio waves themselves.  By making precise measurements of how the signals are distorted or delayed along their way, the BlackJack provides a new way to study Earth's gravity field and atmosphere.
The first of these experimental receivers is flying on a German scientific satellite, Challenging Minisatellite Payload (CHAMP), launched in July.  The second is onboard an Argentine satellite called SAC-C, launched on November 21.  Both instruments were designed and built at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Like any other GPS receiver, the BlackJack can calculate where it is in space and time, but comparing the BlackJack to an ordinary GPS receiver is like comparing a home camcorder to a professional studio camera, said JPL engineer Thomas Yunck, manager of the GPS Observatories Office.  While a typical GPS receiver can determine its position to about 20 meters, the BlackJack can pinpoint the position of its host satellite continuously with an accuracy of 2 to 3 centimeters.  This flight data can be used to improve computer models of the Earth's gravitational field, which in turn can help reveal different Earth properties, including the structure and evolution of the deep interior, the movement of surface ice and atmospheric mass, and ocean circulation.
In a more dramatic departure from conventional GPS use, BlackJack receivers track the radio signals slicing through the Earth's atmosphere as the GPS satellites appear to rise and set. This information will help scientists construct detailed images of the ionosphere and will provide precise profiles of atmospheric density, pressure, temperature, and moisture for climate studies and weather prediction.  The BlackJacks are also equipped with small down-looking antennas to attempt to receive GPS signals that reflect off the oceans.  This highly experimental technique could one day be used to map the subtle variations of the ocean topography, ocean circulation patterns, sense the roughness or state of the ocean surface and estimate surface winds.

NASA Seeks proposals for Pluto mission

NASA has announced that the agency is seeking proposals from principal investigators and institutions around the world to develop the first mission to Pluto, to be selected on a competitive basis similar to the agency's Discovery Program. That program features lower cost highly focused missions with rapid development of the scientific spacecraft.  The proposals are due to NASA Headquarters by March 19, 2001. Competition has worked quite well in other NASA space science programs, and I expect that, through this approach, we will see a number of creative ideas from innovative thinkers and organizations that have not been able to participate in outer planet exploration before, said Dr. Ed Weiler, Associate Administrator for Space Science, In the past decade a number of organizations outside NASA have gained the expertise to successfully fly deep space missions, and in the past few months we have heard the calls from many in the scientific community in favor of open competition in our outer planet program, Dr. Weiler added. I think it's time to try this new approach.  Dr. Colleen Hartman, has been selected as Outer Planets Program Director.  The decision comes three months after unacceptably large cost increases on the Pluto/Kuiper Express (PKE) mission led NASA to issue a stop-order on the project.  NASA will select two or more of the top proposals for more detailed study and will downselect the winning proposal in August 2001. There are no restrictions on the launch date but there is a goal to reach Pluto by 2015. NASA will cap the cost of the Pluto mission at $500 million.  NASA is sponsoring a two-and-a-half-day workshop for scientists, engineers, technologists, and others from NASA centers and the private sector in early February.  The workshop will provide an open forum for presentation, discussion, and consideration of various concepts, options, and innovations for Outer Planet exploration to encourage new ideas, including use of in-space propulsion.
The Pluto/Kuiper Express mission will be the first mission to explore the Solar System's most distant planet and it's moon Charon, and go on to study smaller icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt, a vast region of space encircling the Sun beyond Pluto. The PKE mission will study the composition of the planet's surface and thin atmosphere.