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The planet that gets no respect - for now

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Mark Sykes knows that Pluto is slipping away.

Just 12 years ago, the errant chunk of ice and rock was as close to Earth as it ever gets - swooping inside even Neptune on its odd, elliptical path around the sun. The time was right, it seemed, for humans to finally visit this last unexplored outpost in their solar system.

Plans were made and designs were drawn. The probe would launch in 2004 and rendezvous in 2012, catching Pluto before its oblong orbit took it billions of miles farther into the darkness of space.

Then came the great setback. In September, NASA halted the project, calling it to too expensive. Now, as Pluto loops away, amateurs and scientists like Dr. Sykes are desperately trying to rescue the mission with Web campaigns and project redesigns, knowing that a similar opportunity to study our most mysterious neighbor won't arise again for 200 years.

"There has been a rallying around this project because of the closing window of opportunity," says Sykes, an astronomer at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "If we only have one chance to do this mission, people are going to be much more motivated to do it."

The race is already on. Although NASA put its plans on hold, it has told members of the science community they can have until March 21 to come up with an alternate that costs less than $500 million for the fly-by photo shoot. If NASA finds a proposal to its liking, production could begin this year.

So far, half a dozen teams from physics labs and aerospace companies around the United States have joined the effort. One high school senior in Pennsylvania has even dedicated his website to saving the mission.

It's a tight deadline, participants say, but they understand why timing is crucial. For one, if scientists wait too long, Pluto's anemic atmosphere could freeze and fall out of the sky.

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