New Horizons; Same Old Fears
The new horizons mission has been cancelled again, for the second day in a row. On tuesday it was because of high winds. On wednesday, the facility handling the launch suffered a power failure. They’re going to try again today, but the launch window is getting smaller and smaller.
new horizons is going to be the fastest man made probe, go the furthest, and is going to answer vital questions about what is alternately referred to as the smallest planet or one of the largest kuiper belt objects. its importance to science and our understanding of the solar system is undeniable.
yet, there is one group at least who relish the continual delays and impending doom of the project: the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. ‘Holy crap!’ you say, ‘i didn’t know New Horizons was actually a nuclear launch platform, packed to the gills with warheads ready to blast us all to smithereens from its orbit around pluto!’ And guess what, it still isn’t. What they’re protesting is the 11 kilograms of plutonium dioxide used by the radioisotrope thermoelectric generator (RTG) that powers the probe.
According to NASA, there is a 0.4% chance of a launch accident that releases plutonium. Even in the event that it does occur, the amount released into the atmosphere will cause at worst exposure of 1 rem over 50 years. This is 15 times less than the exposure you get every day from normal background sources. Standing too close to your satellit dish is probably worse.
This just goes to show the bizarre misunderstanding and overreaction that goes hand in hand with nuclear power. Activists have caused many delays in gaining the go ahead to build the new pebble bed reactor at Koeberg. It’s interesting, however, that they don’t stop using all electricity in protest, as every joule in cape town is supplied by an already existing nuclear reactor. It’s all fine and well to protest nuclear energy, just so long as you keep getting to use it.
Of course, the kinds of arguments they use are really great. Paul Gunter of the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Information and Resource Services comments: “The fact that both the planet Pluto and the manmade isotope plutonium are named after the god of hell lends bizarre insight into NASA’s fascination with launching this hideous stuff into the heavens at the risk of fouling the very next of all humankind“. What?? I’m sorry, is that meant to be a cogent argument? Don’t get me started on the fact that someone who works for a nuclear information service doesn’t appear to know the difference between an isotope and an element. It’s bad enough that he thinks it’s manmade.
Protesters to necessary technology never come up with any alternatives of their own. Why don’t they go out and invent a safer, cleaner, more efficient source of energy than nuclear energy? Or another form of energy that is able to keep a probe powered for the 9 years it will take to reach pluto, at a fraction of the weight of conventional chemical batteries? Maybe then we’ll take them seriously. But until that point, they can just shut the hell up.