Recent issues demonstrate risks of nuclear power in space

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The recent crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and explosion on launch three days earlier of an Antares rocket further underline the dangers of inserting nuclear material in the always perilous space flight equation—as the U.S. and Russia still plan.

“SpaceShipTwo has experienced an in-flight anomaly,” Virgin Galactic tweeted after the spacecraft, on which $500 million has been spent for development, exploded on October 31 after being released by its mother ship.   One pilot was killed, another seriously injured. Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic founder, hoped to begin flying passengers on SpaceShipTwo this spring. Some 800 people, including actor Leonard DiCaprio and physicist Steven Hawking,  have signed up for $250,000-a person tickets to take a suborbital ride. SpaceShipTwo debris was spread over the Mojave Desert in California.

Three days before, on Wallops Island, Virginia, an Antares rocket operated by Orbital Sciences Corp. blew up seconds after launch. It was carrying 5,000 pounds of supplies and experiments to the International Space Station. The cost of the rocket alone was put at $200 million.   NASA, in a statement, said that the rocket “suffered a catastrophic anomaly.”   The word anomaly, defined as something that deviates from what is standard, normal or expected, has for years been a space program euphemism for a disastrous accident.

“These two recent space ‘anomalies’ remind us that technology frequently

goes wrong,” said Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.   “When you consider adding nuclear power into the mix it becomes an explosive combination.  We’ve long been sounding the alarm that nuclear power in space is not something the public nor the planet can afford to take a chance on.”

But “adding nuclear power into the mix” is exactly what the U.S. and Russia are planning. Both countries have been using nuclear power on space missions for decades—and accidents involving their nuclear-powered space devices have happened with substantial amounts of radioactive particles released on Earth.

Now, a major expansion in space nuclear power activity is planned with the development by both nations of nuclear-powered rockets for trips to Mars.

One big U.S. site for this is NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “NASA Researchers Studying Advanced Nuclear Rocket Technologies,” announced NASA last year. At the center, it said, “The Nuclear Cryogenic Propulsion team is tackling a three-year project to demonstrate the viability of nuclear propulsion technologies.”  In them, a “nuclear rocket uses a nuclear reactor to heat hydrogen to very high temperatures, which expands through a nozzle to generate thrust. Nuclear rocket engines generate higher thrust and are more than twice as efficient as conventional chemical engines.”

“A first-generation nuclear cryogenic propulsion system could propel human explorers to Mars more efficiently than conventional spacecraft, reducing crew’s exposure to harmful space radiation and other effects of long-term space missions,” NASA went on. “It could also transport heavy cargo and science payloads.”

And out at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the DUFF project—for Demonstrating Using Flattop Fissions—is moving ahead to develop a “robust fission reactor prototype that could be used as a power system for space travel,” according to Technews World. The laboratory’s Advanced Nuclear Technology Division is running the joint Department of Energy-NASA project. “Nuclear Power Could Blast Humans Into Deep Space,” was the headline of Technewsworld’s  2012 article about it. It quoted Dr. Michael Gruntman, professor of aerospace engineering and systems architecture at the University of Southern California, saying,“If we want solar system exploration, we must utilize nuclear technology.” The article declared: “Without the risk, there will be no reward.”

And in Texas, near NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the Ad Astra Rocket Company of former U.S. astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz is busy working on what it calls the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket or VASMIR.  Chang-Diaz began Ad Astra after retiring from NASA in 2005. He’s its president and CEO. The VASMIR system could utilize  solar power, related Space News last year, but “using a VASMIR engine to make a superfast Mars run would require incorporating a nuclear reactor that cranks out megawatts of power, Chang-Diaz said, adding that developing this type of powerful reactor should be high on the nation’s to-do list.”    Chang-Diaz told Voice of America that by using a nuclear reactor for power “we could do a mission to Mars that would take about 39 days, one-way.”   NASA Director Charles Bolden, also a former astronaut as well as a Marine Corps major general, has been a booster of Ad Asra’s project.

Ad Astra and the Nuclear Cryogenic Propulsion project have said their designs would include nuclear systems only starting up when “out of the atmosphere” to prevent, in the event of an accident, “spreading radiation back to Earth.”

However, this isn’t a fail-safe plan. The Soviet Union followed this practice on the satellites powered by nuclear reactors that it launched between the 1960s and 1980s. This included the Cosmos 954. Its on board reactor was only allowed to go critical after it was in orbit, but it subsequently came crashing back to Earth in 1978, breaking up and spreading radioactive debris on the Northwest Territories of Canada.

As to Russia now, “A ground-breaking Russian nuclear space travel propulsion system will be ready by 2017 and will power a ship capable of long-haul interplanetary missions by 2025, giving Russia a head start in the outer-space race,” the Russian news agency RT reported in 2012.   “Nuclear power has generally been considered a valid alternative to fossil fuels to power space craft, as it is the only energy source capable of producing the enormous thrust needed for interplanetary travel….The revolutionary propulsion system falls in line with recently announced plans for Russia to conquer space…Entitled Space Development Strategies up to 2030, Russia aims to send probes to Mars, Jupiter, and Venus, as well as establish a series of bases on the moon.”

This year OSnet Daily, in an article headlined “Russia advances development of nuclear powered Spacecraft,” reported that in 2013 work on the Russian nuclear rocket moved “to the design stage.”

As for space probes, many U.S. and Russian probes have until recently gotten their on board electrical power from systems fueled with plutonium— hotly radioactive from the start.

Also, the U.S. has begun to power Mars rovers with plutonium. After using solar power on Mars rovers, in 2012 NASA launched a Mars rover it named Curiosity fueled with 10.6 pounds of plutonium. NASA plans to launch a Mars rover nearly identical to Curiosity, which it is calling Mars 2020, in 2020.

As devastating in terms of financial damage were last week’s explosions of the Virgin Galactic SpaceshipTwo and Antares rocket, an accident involving a nuclear-powered vehicle or device could be far more costly

The NASA Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Curiosity (then called Mars Science Laboratory) mission states, for example, that the cost of decontamination of areas affected by dispersed plutonium would be $267 million for each square mile of farmland, $478 million for each square mile of forests and $1.5 billion for each square mile of “mixed-use urban areas.”

Odds of an accident were acknowledged as being low. The EIS said a launch accident discharging plutonium had a 1-in-420 chance of happening and could “release material into the regional area defined…within…62 miles of the launch pad” on Cape Canaveral, Florida. The EIS said that “overall” on the mission, the likelihood of plutonium being released was 1-in-220.  If there were an accident resulting in plutonium fallout that occurred before the rocket carrying Curiosity broke through Earth’s gravitational field, people could be affected in a broad swath of Earth “anywhere between 28-degrees north and 28-degrees south latitude” on Earth, said the EIS.

Gagnon said at the time: “NASA sadly appears committed to maintaining its dangerous alliance with the nuclear industry…The taxpayers are being asked once again to pay for nuclear missions that could endanger the lives of all the people on the planet. Have we not learned anything from Chernobyl and Fukushima? We don’t need to be launching nukes into space. It’s not a gamble we can afford to take.”

Curiosity made it up, and to Mars.

But in NASA’s history of nuclear power shots, happening since the 1950s, there have been accidents. The worst among the 26 U.S. space nuclear missions listed in the Curiosity EIS occurred in 1964 and involved the SNAP-9A plutonium system aboard a satellite that failed to achieve orbit and dropped to Earth, disintegrating as it fell. Its plutonium fuel dispersed widely That accident spurred NASA to develop solar energy for satellites and now all satellites are solar-powered as is the International Space Station.

And in recent times, solar power has been increasingly shown to be practical even to generate on board electricity for missions far out in space. On its way to Jupiter now is NASA’s Juno space probe, chemically-propelled and with solar photovoltaic panels generating all its on board electricity. When Juno reaches Jupiter in 2016 it will be nearly 500 million miles from the Sun, but the high-efficiency solar cells will still be generating power.

In August, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta space probe, similarly solar-powered, rendezvoused with a comet in deep space, 400 million miles from Earth. http://news.discovery.com/space/asteroids-meteors-meteorites/rosetta-probe-makes-historic-comet-rendezvous-140806.htmb

Advances, too, have been made in propelling spacecraft in the vacuum of space. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in 2010 launched what it termed a “space yacht” it called Ikaros which successfully got its propulsion power from the pressure on its large sails of ionizing particles emitted by the Sun.

Among other ways of propelling spacecraft, discussed at a Starship Congress last year in Texas was a system using orbiting lasers to direct beams on to a spacecraft. The magazine New Scientist said “beam sails are regarded as the most promising tech for a starship.”

A scientist long-involved in laser space power research is Geoff Landis of the Photovoltaics and Space Environment Branch at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland who, in a 2002 NASA publication, “The Edge of Sunshine,” wrote: “In the long term, solar arrays will not have to rely on the Sun. We’re investigating the concept of using lasers to beam photons to solar arrays. If you make a powerful enough laser and can aim the beam, there’s really isn’t any edge to sunshine—with a big enough lens, we could beam light to a space-probe halfway to alpha-Centauri!”

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you to Mr. Grossman for another excellent summary of the insanity of putting nuclear radiation into space.

    Are the scientists who work on putting nuclear radiation into space educated on the dangers of nuclear radiation to humans and all DNA, or do they just not care?

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