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Cassini Fly-by's Hidden Hazard.

On August 18, NASA's Cassini space probe -- loaded with 72.3 pounds of plutonium and traveling 42,000 mph -- came within 719 miles of hitting the Earth. Cassini's close encounter sent the probe hurtling back into space toward a rendezvous with Saturn. Had anything gone wrong, the Earth could have been coated in a shroud of deadly plutonium dust for 24,000 years.

In a worst-case disaster, NASA estimated that 5 billion people would have received "99% or more of the radiation exposure" from 400,000 curies of plutonium oxide released into the atmosphere. NASA's assurance that nothing would go wrong with the fly-by was undercut by the fact that, on January 11, NASA lost control of Cassini for four days.

A Jet Propulsion Laboratory report identified 18 different malfunctions that could have rendered the probe "uncommandable." The US Interagency Nuclear Safety Review Panel (INSRP) warmed that NASA's preparations "fail to assure ... safety" of Cassini and estimated that a Cassini mishap would produce "several tens of thousands of latent cancer fatalities worldwide over the next 50 years." Contrary to NASA's claims, the INSRP concluded that the space probe's plutonium containers were not "designed for the high-speed re-entry characteristic of this fly-by maneuver."

The Cassini mission even worried NASA insiders. Before becoming chief NASA administrator, Daniel S. Goldin publicly recommended canceling the Cassini project because of its "enormous risk factors."

At 8:22 PM Pacific Standard Time -- the precise moment the Cassini began its critical fly-by maneuver -- the Journal logged onto the NASA website and opened the live file labeled "Where is Cassini?" To our surprise, we discovered that -- owing to "earth occultation" -- nobody really knew where Cassini was. According to NASA, the space probe's position remained unknown from 8:22 until 8:51 during this critical phase.

There was another surprise. The Journal noticed that the Cassini's 719-mile high flyby would carry it through the paths of 8,674 satellites -- military, communications, weather and spy tools -- now girdling the Earth. In its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), NASA concluded that "Of all the failure modes identified, only micrometeoroid-induced propellant tank ruptures contribute significantly to the short-term impact probability." Nowhere did the EIS address the possibility of Cassini colliding with Earth-orbiting satellites.

"I've seen nothing in any of the NASA literature speaking of coordinating the Cassini fly-by trajectory so it avoids space debris," Cassini critic Karl Grossman told the Journal. "It's as if NASA is just making believe the stuff isn't there."

While NASA seemed unconcerned about the risk of orbiting satellites and space debris, the Christian Science Monitor was reporting on June 28 that "orbital flotsam could knock out key satellites and threaten human presence in space."

NASA originally had planned to send the space probe skipping by only 434 miles above the Earth -- a trajectory would have magnified the risks of cross-orbital collision. An outcry from the world's scientific community convinced NASA to increase the fly-by altitude to 719 miles.

Cassini is gone but the danger is not passed. NASA intends to launch several more plutonium-powered probes -- all designed to streak back toward the Earth for fly-by boosts.

What You Can Do: Ask your representatives and the White House [(202) 456-1111] to halt to the use of nuclear power in space. For more information, contact: Action Site to Stop Cassini Earth Flyby/Box 1999, Wendell Depot, MA 01380, www.nonviolence.org/noflyby].

RELATED ARTICLE: US Bombs Moon

On July 31, the US brazenly violated the 1979 Moon Treaty by crashing NASA's Lunar Prospector into the Moon's South Pole. NASA hailed its "creative impact" maneuver as 'a final bold experiment" that hit with the force of "a two-ton car [traveling] more than 1,100 mph."

The impact Left the crash-site contaminated with toxic hydrazine and littered with a cylinder containing the ashs of US scientist Gene Shoemaker. (Previous US Moon-litter includes a metal flag, a beatup moon-buggy and several golf balls.)

If there is enough water on the Moon, the US could colonize the satellite. "This is just the first page in a new chapter about how we explore space," said Lunar Prospector Chief Scientist Alan Binder. "Our goat is to get a commercial Lunar base in 10 to 12 years" -- another violation of the Moon Treaty, which declares Earth's only satellite to be "the common heritage of [hu]mankind."
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:GS
Publication:Earth Island Journal
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 1999
Words:720
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