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Cassini: Destroyer Or Discoverer? MAG
The other day I was watching the news with my brother when the launching of Cassini, NASA's new
plutonium-powered satellite, came on. Seeing the report, my brother sarcastically commented, "That's just wonderful!" I asked what he meant. "It's carrying plutonium! That's dangerous!"
"Oh? Why is it dangerous?" I inquired.
"Well, umm, it's bad, and uhh ... could blow up or something ... and could kill everyone on Earth."
Now, obviously this is an uninformed exaggeration. Few people know solid facts about nuclear power or this satellite. What they do know is exaggerated by fear and misinformation.
As the satellite was taking off, 22 anti-nuclear activists showed up to protest. The rocket carries 72 pounds of plutonium, the most ever flown in space. It is also the biggest, most complex, and most expensive planetary probe. Few probes like Cassini will be launched again, as NASA tries for a faster, better, and cheaper agenda.
The scale of the mission is comparative to the scale of the tasks the probe will complete. The probe will swing by Venus twice to use the planet's gravity as a slingshot. The rocket will then swing within 500 miles of Earth, before heading for Saturn, and will enter its orbit in July of 2004. The probe will observe the second largest planet in our solar system and its multiple rings, including the enigmatic Titan. We know very little about Saturn, or its moons. The possibility of discovery is great, the risk slight.
The anti-nuclear activists claim the rocket could explode and send radiation falling to Earth. But the sun is a giant nuclear reaction, constantly pummeling the Earth with radiation. The atmosphere is designed to keep the radiation out. The activists also claim that parts of the rocket could fall back to Earth and spread radiation. NASA has published proven statistics that if the rocket was destroyed at its closest proximity to Earth, there would be only a one in a million chance of anything getting back to the Earth.
Nuclear power plants are everywhere in United States, and are just as dangerous as the rocket, but the rocket is thousands of miles from Earth, where it isn't going to hurt anyone.
So, why are people still frightened by this rocket? People do not fear the rocket itself, or the small nuclear reactor it carries. They fear nuclear power and this satellite is only an scapegoat. Most Americans know little, if anything, about nuclear power, and people fear what they do not understand. Nuclear power is actually one of the safest forms of power. Chances are much, much greater of being killed in a car accident than in a nuclear accident. Yet, people aren't picketing the highways, clamoring about the "horrible dangers." Driving is under their control. Americans don't know who controls the reactors in power plants, so they fear that some untrained worker will cause the end of the world. In the popular cartoon show, "The Simpsons," the father is a blundering imbecile who works at the town's nuclear power plant. He frequently has near-misses at blowing the city up.
There really isn't anything to fear from Cassini. Cassini will hopefully discover important details about the solar system with minimal risk. u