Posted by Stephen Tindale

The Philae lander has woken up. When Philae landed on the comet, it was on its side in a valley, so its solar panels could not generate enough electricity to keep the lander’s technology operating once the batteries ran out. As a result, Philae did excellent scientific research for 60 hours, then ‘went to sleep’. Seven months later, the comet is closer to the sun so the solar panels are generating enough power to resume research. This is excellent news. But seven months of research have been lost unnecessarily. Philae should have carried a nuclear power source, as NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover did. Stephan Ulamec, Philae lander manager, was asked last November why Philae didn’t have one. He replied that ‘launching nuclear power sources carries safety and political implications and, in any case, Europe does not have that technology’. (http://www.spacepolicyonline.com/news/is-philaes-time-coming-to-an-end.)

The safety issue is – as so often with nuclear power – overstated. Mars Curiosity was powered by a small, solid amount of Plutonium-238, completely insoluble in water. Physics professor Ethan Siegel writes that: “This means that even if there’s a disaster on launch, the radioactive material won’t go anywhere, and can not only be retrieved, but reused in future missions.” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/ethansiegel/2015/06/15/first-probe-to-land-on-a-comet-is-awake-but-our-nuclear-fears-cost-us-seven-months-of-data/ )

Would Europe have been able to obtain the necessary nuclear equipment from NASA? Surely the answer is yes. The space race is over. The Soviet Union put the first person in space; the USA put the first person on the moon. The European Space Agency, Philae’s owner, has been working with NASA on the International Space Station since 1998.

So it was down to politics. Theological opposition to all things nuclear, led by Germany (as most things in Europe are at present), meant that Philae was sent to land on a comet with only intermittent solar photovoltaics to replenish its power supply. Angela Merkel, who has a PhD in quantum chemistry, allowed her politics to obscure her scientific desire for knowledge.

Sign up for Weinberg Newsletter
* = required field

I am delighted to support the Alvin Weinberg Foundation’s crucial mission of researching the potential of new nuclear technology and raising awareness amongst the public and civil society. — Professor Jim al-Khalili OBE

Recent Posts

Exploring space by exploiting nuclear

by Stephen Tindale (June 16th, 2015)

How nuclear can help the Californian drought

by Suzanna Hinson (June 15th, 2015)

AWF are hiring!

by Suzanna Hinson (June 10th, 2015)

Japan needs to return to Nuclear

by Suzanna Hinson (June 9th, 2015)

Posts Archive

Categories

  • Economics (68)
  • Efficiency (52)
  • Proliferation (31)
  • Safety (57)
  • Security (13)
  • Uncategorized (32)
  • Waste (51)
  • © The Alvin Weinberg Foundation 2014
    The Alvin Weinberg Foundation is a registered UK charity. Charity number: 1155255
    The Alvin Weinberg Foundation web site uses cookies to record visitor patterns.
    Read our data protection policy

    Design by Tauri-tec Ltd and the Alvin Weinberg Foundation