What is NASA's future now that Atlantis has landed and the shuttle program is over? If NASA persists in using nuclear power in space, the agency's future is threatened.
Between November 25 and December 15 NASA plans to launch for use on Mars a rover fueled with 10.6 pounds of plutonium, more plutonium than ever used on a rover.
The mission has a huge cost: $2.5 billion.
But if there is an accident before the rover is well on its way to Mars, and plutonium is released on Earth, its cost stands to be yet more gargantuan.
NASA's Final Environmental Impact Statement for what it calls its Mars Science Laboratory Mission says that if plutonium is released on Earth, the cost could be as high as $1.5 billion to decontaminate each square mile of "mixed-use urban areas" impacted.
What"s the probability of an accident releasing plutonium? The NASA document says "the probability of an accident with a release of plutonium" is 1-in-220 "overall."
If you knew your chance of not surviving an airplane flight--or just a drive in a car--was 1 in 220, would you take that trip?
And is this enormous risk necessary?
In two weeks, there'll be a NASA mission demonstrating a clear alternative to atomic energy in space: solar power.
On August 5, NASA plans to launch a solar-powered space probe it's named Juno to Jupiter. There's no atomic energy involved, although NASA for decades has insisted that nuclear power is necessary for space devices beyond the orbit of Mars. With Juno, NASA will be showing it had that wrong.
"Juno will provide answers to critical science questions about Jupiter, as well as key information that will dramatically enhance present theories about the early formation of our own solar system," says NASA on its website. "In 2016, the spinning, solar-powered Juno spacecraft will reach Jupiter." It will be equipped with "instruments that can sense the hidden world beneath Jupiter's colorful clouds" and make 33 passes of Jupiter.
As notes Aviation Week and Space Technology: "The unique spacecraft will set a record by running on solar power rather than nuclear radioisotope thermoelectric generators previously used to operate spacecraft that far from the Sun."
The Mars rover to be launched, named Curiosity by NASA, will be equipped with these radioisotope thermoelectric generators using plutonium, the deadliest radioactive substance.
Juno, a large craft--66-feet wide--will be powered by solar panels built by a Boeing subsidiary, Spectrolab. The panels can convert 28 percent of the sunlight that them to electricity. They'll also produce heat to keep Juno's instruments warm. This mission's cost is $1.1 billion.
In fact, Juno is not a wholly unique spacecraft. In 2004, the European Space Agency launched a space probe called Rosetta that is also solar-powered. Its mission is to orbit and land on a comet--beyond the orbit of Jupiter.
Moreover, there have been major developments in "solar sails" to propel spacecraft. Last year, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched its Ikaros spacecraft with solar sails taking it to Venus. In January, NASA itself launched its NanoSail-D spacecraft. The Planetary Society has been developing several spacecraft that will take advantage of photons emitted by the Sun to travel through the vacuum of space.