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Those of us who have followed NASA’s use of plutonium-238 dioxide in prior space missions are terrified of this particular launch. Why? Bad engineering! The containers for the plutonium are NOT designed to prevent the release of their deadly contents during certain critical and unavoidable phases of the flight: Late launch, for example, or a full-stack powered impact into the earth (something they have self-destruct mechanisms to avoid, but even self-destruct mechanisms have been known to fail at critical times).
There are many pathways to failure in this mission, failures which can result in massive poisonings of Florida or nearly anywhere else on the planet — or simply the whole planet.
The alternative, after reading the description of the problem with solar power in the article, appears to be simply to put dust-wipers on the solar panels.
Instead, the additional weight of this new rover demands a new method of landing on Mars — the old one was unreliable anyway. (Bouncy Bouncy.) This one will be, too, one can be sure of that. So all that plutonium might be launched for naught — hundreds of billions of lethal doses’ worth of one of the world’s most deadly poisons. (Pu-238 is nearly 300 times more toxic than normal “weapons grade” plutonium (Pu-239). It’s half-life, about 87 years, is correspondingly shorter than Pu-239’s 24,000 year half-life.)
Thousands of people have already protested these dangerous nuclear launches. NASA’s arrogance regarding its use of plutonium-238 for “civilian” purposes appears to be directly related to the U.S. government’s stated desire to launch plutonium and uranium-powered military rocketry for “domination” of outer space near earth. So there are two very good reasons to oppose this launch, besides that it’s a waste of money.
The amount of space debris already in orbit guarantees that if nuclear payloads are launched, there will be catastrophic accidents and fall-backs to earth, possibly over highly-populated areas. This one launch could cause a major city such as Tokyo or New York to have to be abandoned! The containers are designed to release their payloads at high altitude in the event of an accident, but that doesn’t actually save a planet full of people because Pu follows a “Linear, No Threshold” health effects pattern, as far as we know (“we” being the National Academy of Sciences, for example). So no matter where or how it comes down, it’s bound to poison a lot of people before it all decays. And a significant portion of the Pu is, in fact, Pu-239 with its 24,000 year half-life.
This launch is anything but an engineering marvel and anyone truly curious about it will be aghast. It’s a potential human disaster. Thus it is already an engineering failure, and forcing this horrific risk on billions of unsuspecting humans (who are now breathing Fukushima’s effluent as well) is especially cruel. There is no reason for NASA to do this.
The author’s prior comments on Cassini were published in Space News, The Washington Post and elsewhere. He is a computer programmer and co-author of Statistics Explained, a computer program which teaches first-year statistics for scientists. He is also the author of All About Pumps and the Animated Periodic Table of the Elements, and a co-author of The Heart: The Engine of Life, all computer programs. He has also authored a book about nuclear power: The Code Killers (2008).