Space cadets

If environmentalists had their way, probes would never have touched down on Titan, Saturn's moon.

Joe Kaplinsky

Topics Science & Tech

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As we see the amazing pictures and data from the Huygens probe on Saturn’s moon Titan, perhaps it’s better not to waste time worrying over environmentalist scaremongers.

But it is worth remembering that environmentalists opposed the launch of the mission that has sent back the new data. The Cassini satellite runs on nuclear energy – its Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) is powered by plutonium.

Back in 1997 Greenpeace wrote to then US President Bill Clinton ‘to express dismay and steadfast opposition to the planned launch of 72 pounds of plutonium into space onboard the Cassini space probe’, and warn that ‘[d]ispersal of the plutonium in the event of a launch pad accident or disintegration in the atmosphere could pose a grave health risk’ (1).

Yet this warning was based not only on playing up the small risk of an accident, but also on junk science that massively overestimated the toxicity of plutonium if the worst did happen.

A successful launch didn’t stop the anti-Cassini activists. In order to pick up the speed to reach Saturn, Cassini had to swing by Venus and then the Earth. Protesters feared that a collision with the Earth during the flyby could poison billions of people. They demanded that the mission be aborted at Venus, and petitioned the UN to invoke the precautionary principle (2).

When their campaign to stop Cassini failed, the ‘No Flyby’ newsletter warned that we should prepare for the flyby by stockpiling food, buying gas masks, and turning off the air conditioning so as to keep out contaminated air (3).

Of course space exploration can be risky. But the success of Cassini-Huygens reminds us that some risks are worth taking and that worst-case scenarios generally don’t come true. As John Zarnecki, professor of space science at the Open University and principal investigator of an experiment on the Huygens probe, wrote on spiked: ‘If we had followed the precautionary principle, there would have been no exploration so far of the outer Solar System – no Voyager flybys of Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus; no Galileo mission to Jupiter and Europa (with the discovery of oceans below the surface of Europa, and the possibility of primitive life existing there).’ (4)

If we are to see more successful space exploration, and especially if US President George W Bush is serious about his proposal for manned space exploration, we will need a robust attitude to risk. The precautionary principle would have stopped Cassini-Huygens. We shouldn’t give it the chance to stop future exploration.

Read on:

The space where the argument should be, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Greenpeace directors appeal to Clinton to postpone Cassini space launch – urge use of solar technology, 10 October 1997

(2) Emergency petition, Flyby news

(3) NoFlyby Newsletter No. 18, Flyby news

(4) Science, risk and the price of precaution, by Sandy Starr

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Topics Science & Tech


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