Mars ‘Curiosity’ and atomic energy in space

Mars ‘Curiosity’ and atomic energy in space

Karl Grossman
The first Mars rover fueled with plutonium landed on the red planet Monday ­ and there was much cheerleading by mainstream media but no mention of the huge danger the device, which NASA calls Curiosity, has posed to people and other life on Earth before getting to Mars.

Indeed, NASA in its Environmental Impact Statement for Curiosity, said that the chances had been but one-in-220 of deadly plutonium being released “overall” on the mission. If the rocket that had lofted it from Florida last year blew up on launch, ­ and one in 100 rockets destruct on launch ­ that could have sent plutonium 62 miles away, as far as Orlando, said the EIS. If the rocket failed to break out of Earth’s gravity and take Curiosity on to Mars but, instead, fell back into the Earth’s atmosphere and, with Curiosity, disintegrated as it fell, a broad area of the Earth could have been impacted by plutonium.

Meanwhile, nuclear promoters have been heralding the Curiosity mission saying it points to more use of nuclear power in space. World Nuclear News, the information arm of the World Nuclear Association which seeks to boost the use of atomic energy, last month said:

“A new era of space exploration is dawning through the application of nuclear energy for rovers on Mars and the Moon, power generation at future bases on the surfaces of both and soon for rockets that enable interplanetary travel.” The article was headed: “Nuclear ‘a stepping stone’ to space exploration.”

In fact, in space as on Earth there are safe, clean alternatives to nuclear power. Before Curiosity, Mars rovers were solar-powered. A NASA space probe energized by solar energy is right now on its way to Jupiter, a mission which for years NASA claimed could not be accomplished without nuclear power providing onboard electricity. Solar propulsion of spacecraft has begun. And also, scientists, including those at NASA, have been working on using solar energy and other safe power sources for human colonies on Mars and the Moon.

“Next year,” said World Nuclear News, “China is to launch a rover for the Moon” that also will be “powered by a nuclear battery.” And “most significant of all” in terms of nuclear power in space, continued World Nuclear News, “could be the Russian project for a ‘megawatt-class’ nuclear-powered rocket.”

The problem­ left untouched by World Nuclear News ­ involves accidents with space nuclear power systems releasing radioactivity on people and other life on Earth. That has already happened. With more space nuclear operations, more atomic mishaps would be ahead.

Initiatives in recent years to power spacecraft safely and cleanly include the launch by NASA last Aug. 8 of a solar-powered space probe it calls Juno to Jupiter. NASA’s Juno website currently reports: “The spacecraft is in excellent health and is operating nominally.” It is flying at 35,200 miles per hour and is to reach Jupiter in 2016. Even at Jupiter, “nearly 500 million miles from the Sun,” notes NASA, its solar panels will be providing electricity.

Solar power has also begun to be utilized to propel spacecraft through the friction-less vacuum of space. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in 2010 launched what it termed a “space yacht” called Ikaros which received propulsion from the pressure on its large sails from ionizing particles emitted by the Sun. The sails also feature “thin-film solar cells to generate electricity and creating,” said Yuichi Tsuda of the agency, “a hybrid technology of electricity and pressure.”

As for powering the colonies on Mars, not only the sun is considered as a power source but also energy from the Martian winds. And, on the Moon, as The Daily Galaxy has reported:

“NASA is eying the Moon’s south polar region as a possible site for future outposts. The location has many advantages; for one thing, there is evidence of water frozen in deep dark south polar craters. Water can be split into oxygen to breathe and hydrogen to burn as rocket fuel or astronauts could simply drink it. NASA’s lunar architects are also looking for what they call ‘peaks of eternal light­polar mountains where the sun never sets, which might be a perfect settings for a solar power station.”

Still, the pressure by promoters of nuclear energy on NASA and space agencies around the world to use atomic energy in space is intense ­as is the drive of nuclear promoters on governments and the public for atomic energy on Earth.

Critically, nuclear power systems for space use must be fabricated on Earth ­ with all the dangers that involves, and are subject to falling back to Earth and raining deadly radioactivity on human beings and other life on this planet.

Karl Grossman has been a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury for 32 years. This abridged article originally appeared on the common dreams website.