How Solar Energy Beats Nuclear Power on Earth and in Space
A demonstration that in space, as on Earth, solar is an alternative to dangerous nuclear power is to come this week when a solar-powered spacecraft called Rosetta will rendezvous with a comet at 375 million miles from the Sun.
Artist’s impression of the Philae lander. Credits: ESA–J. Huart, 2013
The Rosetta space probe, energized with solar power, is to meet up Wednesday with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It will begin making observations, relaying back to Earth high-resolution images and information from its sensors of the two-and-a-half mile wide comet. Rosetta will subsequently send a lander down to the comet that will drill into it and perform a variety of experiments. For a year, Rosetta will fly alongside the comet, named after the two Ukranian astronomers who discovered it in 1969.
For decades, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and now Russia, stressed the use of atomic energy as a source of power in space—and there have been accidents as a result.
The most serious were the falls back to Earth of a U.S. satellite with a SNAP-9A plutonium-238 radioisotope thermal generator on board in 1964, disintegrating as it fell, dispersing plutonium worldwide, and of the Soviet Cosmos Satellite 954 in 1978, with an atomic reactor on board, also breaking up, and spreading nuclear debris for hundreds of miles across the Northwest Territories of Canada.
The late Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, long connected the SNAP-9A accident and its dispersal of plutonium with a global increase in lung cancer. Canada demanded compensation for the Cosmos-954 accident which the Soviet Union eventually paid, in part.
Now all satellites are solar-powered as is the International Space Station. But there has been a push to continue to use nuclear power on space probes with NASA and formerly Soviet and now Russian space authorities insisting that solar power cannot be harvested far from the Sun.
However, the European Space Agency (ESA) declares on its website:
The solar cells in Rosetta’s solar panels are based on a completely new technology, so-called Low-intensity Low Temperature Cells. Thanks to them, Rosetta is the first space mission to journey beyond the main asteroid belt relying solely on solar cells for power generation. Previous deep-space missions used nuclear RTGs, radioisotope thermal generators. The new solar cells allow Rosetta to operate over 800 million kilometres from the Sun, where levels of sunlight are only 4% those on Earth. The technology will be available for future deep-space, such as ESA’s upcoming Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer.
ESA notes: “ESA has not developed RTG i.e. nuclear technology, so the agency decided to develop solar cells that could fill the same function.”
Rosetta, launched in 2004, “relies entirely on the energy provided by its innovative solar panels for all onboard instruments and subsystems,” says ESA.
NASA has begun to follow ESA’s lead. It went with solar power for its Juno mission to Jupiter that is now underway. Launched in 2011, energized by solar power, the Juno space probe is to arrive at Jupiter in 2016.
At the distance at which Rosetta will encounter Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko or at which Juno will be doing experiments involving Jupiter or ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer will work, energy from the Sun is but a small fraction of what it is on Earth. Still, it can be effectively utilized. (NASA’s last space probe mission to Jupiter, Galileo, launched in 1989, was plutonium-powered and NASA officials insisted, including in sworn testimony countering a challenge to Galileo in federal court, that this was the only energy choice. There were numerous protests against Galileo and have been to subsequent nuclear space shots led by the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space.)
Rosetta is named after the Rosetta Stone, a slab of basalt found in Egypt in 1799 with inscriptions carved on it that enabled the deciphering of hieroglyphics, the ancient language of Egypt. “As a result of this breakthrough, scholars were able to piece together the history of a lost culture,” notes ESA.
Likewise, “Rosetta’s prime objective is to help understand the origin and evolution of the Solar System,” says ESA. “The comet’s composition reflects the composition of the pre-solar nebula out of which the Sun and the planets of the Solar System formed, more than 4.6 billion years ago. Therefore, an in-depth analysis of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by Rosetta and its lander will provide essential information to understand how the Solar System formed.”
ESA adds, “There is convincing evidence that comets played a key role in the evolution of the planets, because cometary impacts are known to have been much more common in the early Solar System than today. Comets, for example, probably brought much of the water in today’s ocean. They could even have provided the complex organic molecules that may have played a crucial role in the evolution of life on Earth.”
Rosetta “will be undertaking several ‘firsts’ in space exploration,” says ESA. “It will be the first mission to orbit and land on a comet.” And, Rosetta will be “the first spacecraft to witness, at close proximity” the changes in a comet as it approaches the Sun. Rosetta’s lander “will obtain the first images from a comet’s surface and make the first in-situ subsurface analysis of its composition.”
The Rosetta lander, given the name Philea, is to touch down on the comet’s surface in November and “remain operational through the end of 2015 . . . A drilling system will obtain samples down to 23 cm below the surface and will feed these to the spectrometers for analysis, such as to determine the chemical composition. Other instruments will measure properties such as near-surface strength, density, texture, porosity, ice phases and thermal properties . . . In addition, instruments on the lander will study how the comet changes during the day-night cycle, and while it approaches the Sun.”
The lander is being called Philea for Philea Island in the Nile where an obelisk was found that supplemented the use of the Rosetta Stone in the deciphering of hieroglyphics.
The cost of the mission is 1.3 billion Euros ($1.75 billion at current exchange rates) and ESA asks the question: “Why spend such a huge amount of public money on studying remote stones in space?”
ESA responds: “ESA’s task is to explore the unknown. In the case of Rosetta, scientists will be learning about comets, objects that have fascinated mankind for millennia” and “are thought to be the most primitive objects in the Solar System, the building blocks from which the planets were made. So Rosetta will provide exciting new insights into how the planets, including Earth, were born and how life began.”
There can be things that can still go wrong on the mission. Gases from the comet could affect Rosetta flying with it. Philea could fail to get hooked to the comet, although a “harpoon” system has been devised for it to anchor itself to the comet’s surface.
But if the Rosetta mission is a success it will be a superb example of a space mission that represents no nuclear threat to life on Earth and of a quest with the highest of purposes—exploring the mysteries of the Solar System and the origins of life.
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, is the author of The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet and narrator and writer of the television documentary Nukes in Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens (www.envirovideo.com).
You Might Also Like
New fossils uncovered in Argentina may belong to one of the largest animals to have walked on Earth.
- Groundbreaking Fossil Shows Prehistoric 15-Foot Reptile Tried to ... ›
- Skull of Smallest Known Dinosaur Found in 99-Million-Year Old Amber ›
- Giant 'Toothed' Birds Flew Over Antarctica 40 Million Years Ago ... ›
- World's Second-Largest Egg Found in Antarctica Probably Hatched ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
- Pruitt Guts the Clean Power Plan: How Weak Will the New EPA ... ›
- It's Official: Trump Administration to Repeal Clean Power Plan ... ›
- 'Deadly' Clean Power Plan Replacement ›
By Jonathan Runstadler and Kaitlin Sawatzki
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have found coronavirus infections in pet cats and dogs and in multiple zoo animals, including big cats and gorillas. These infections have even happened when staff were using personal protective equipment.
- Gorillas in San Diego Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Wildlife Rehabilitators Are Overwhelmed During the Pandemic. In ... ›
- Coronavirus Pandemic Linked to Destruction of Wildlife and World's ... ›
- Utah Mink Becomes First Wild Animal to Test Positive for Coronavirus ›
By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
By John R. Platt
The period of the 45th presidency will go down as dark days for the United States — not just for the violent insurgency and impeachment that capped off Donald Trump's four years in office, but for every regressive action that came before.
- Biden Announces $2 Trillion Climate and Green Recovery Plan ... ›
- How Biden and Kerry Can Rebuild America's Climate Leadership ... ›
- Biden's EPA Pick Michael Regan Urged to Address Environmental ... ›
- How Joe Biden's Climate Plan Compares to the Green New Deal ... ›