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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).
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Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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