The Senate Appropriations Committee has budgeted $25 million for NASA to begin work on a Pluto mission, but the new funding still would need to be approved later this fall by members of the House and the president. Previous plans for a $700-million Pluto mission were scrapped by the space agency in September. Two teams, including one from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, are now competing to put together a $500-million mission.
If approved, the new money would allow development of a mission but is not enough to ensure a 2004 launch. Many scientists want to launch a mission by then so they have a better chance of observing the tiny planet's atmosphere, which is waning as Pluto moves away from the sun.