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.

Comments

  1. James Greenidge says:

    You’re right on here — ditto as with the badly underpowered and under-equipped PC-conscious solar-strapped Juno mission, so why won’t supposedly open-minded Scientific American concur with your rational and points? Same lame reasons they thumbs-down on nuclear power.

    Damn shame.

    This has been THE main problem with public nuclear acceptance and support almost everywhere. No public pop-culture champions or nuclear Carl Sagans espousing nuclear’s virtues and putting its issues in perspective for fighting FUD. Nuclear has a sterling safety and environmental and operational record — even worst accidents combined — that most all industries would dearly wish for, yet nuclear’s constantly behind the eight ball in the public perception department. Why do people so believe that reactors are giant eggshells that just can’t wait to blow? How is it that “science” TV programming always focuses on nuclear’s dark “perils and hazards” unchecked and do gross misinformation such as asserting that Niagara Falls powers Toronto while totally omitting that it’s nukes doing the job? If global warming was such a critical environmental emergency why aren’t these shows and politicians hawking nukes more?? Total lack of public education and AGGRESSIVE PR.

    Unfortunately most in the nuclear community and industry are far more focused on hardware than peopleware. I mean the NEI and ANS and other nuclear orgs hold all these back-slapping meetings and conferences where addressing battling FUD is just a side show mention if at all. Totally zero battle plans outside token nuke PR Tupperwear parties. In an odd Darwinian way I can’t blame Helen and Arnie and Greenpeace and FOE & Company for getting over deceiving the public the way they have totally unchallenged. They’re simply filling a PR niche that the nuclear community should’ve plugged since TMI — and yet to. There’re no captains on this ship.

    James Greenidge
    Queens, New York

  2. Tim Tinsley says:

    Stephen,
    Nuclear use in space has been going on for decades. Voyager, Cassini, Apollo, New Horizons are just some of the craft that used plutonium 238 to provide their heat and power. You are correct, Europe does not have access to its own systems currently but interestingly Cassini was a joint USA / Europe mission that used a USA supplied nuclear power source. The European Space Agency has actually been funding development work towards its own system since 2009 with a roadmap that leads to deployable systems by late next decade. This includes the need for launch safety approval. It’s important to note that these systems will not use plutonium 238 but will instead use americium 241. This doesn’t change the launch safety requirements, it is after all still nuclear material, but does help with the availability of the material.
    You can read more here if interested. http://www.planetary.org/blogs/guest-blogs/2015/0423-can-a-nuclear-waste-help-humanity-reach-for-the-stars.html

  3. Richard Mason says:

    I completely agree with the previous post, I’m going to email my MP after this and ask what he feels is the correct way to assert the Nuclear debate at least at a local level until it gets noticed nationally, but like yourself I believe the people that matter who have the political and financial clout aren’t making enough noise where it matters i.e in the media.

    Richard Mason
    Skegness U.K

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