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|Chapter 7 - Nuclear Rockets and Spacecraft||
|1 of 7|
(Six RTG spacecraft are orbiting at around 1,000 kilometers and 2 RTG satellites are at geo-stationary orbits, at about 36,000 kilometers.)
Transit 4A (1961) [orbit 930km]
Transit 4B (1961) [orbit 1,030km; damaged by HANE test]
Transit 5BN1 (1963) [orbit 1,095km]#
Transit 5BN2(1963) [orbit 1,085km]
Transit 5BN3 (1963) - mission failure
Triad 1 (Triad-01-1X) (1972) [orbit 770km]
Nimbus-B1 (1968; launch failure)
Nimbus-III (1969, meteorological) [orbit 1,100km]
LES-8 (1976) [orbit 35,785km]
LES-9 (1976) [orbit 35,785km]
*The Transits and Triad craft were Navy navigational satellites. LES 8 and 9 were Air Force communications satellites.
*Unofficially, a number of U.S. metereological satellites were launched with nuclear power sources; this is per a dossier titled 'STOP CASSINI EARTH FLYBY' by Regina Hagen in 1998, which notes that Nimbus IV, Nimbus V, Nimbus VI and Nimbus VII all had SNAP 19 generators. Nimbus IV and VI are apparently in 'pieces' and 'parts' in orbit, or could have already re-entered the atmosphere, which would give a whole new meaning to the term 'NIMBY.'
# Transit 5-BN-1 may have decayed to a lower orbit.
Note: Many people assume that post-1964 RTG units will not lose their integrity upon re-entry because of redesigns following the Transit-5BN-3 disaster. One needs to look below at the story of 'Mars 96' to realize that this is simply not true. Many, if not all, nuclear sources up in LEO are vulnerable to atmospheric disintegration, radiological dispersal and mass poisonings.
Introduction: The United States and the former Soviet Union have used and still use nuclear materials to operate or heat some of their orbiting satellites and exploratory spacecraft. Both countries' space programs have experienced accidents involving nuclear-powered spacecraft (lunar landers, rovers, satellites and probes) that re-entered the Earth's atmosphere. Re-entries of American nuclear spacecraft - that are confirmed - resulted in two 'atomic batteries' landing in the ocean (only one was recovered) and another battery burning up in the upper atmosphere, causing 2 pounds of plutonium to descend to the surface of all latitudes. The Soviets experienced re-entries that crashed one 'atomic battery' and *at least* two nuclear reactors on Earth. These nuclear accidents injected fresh plutonium and uranium dust all over the globe and permanently contaminated sections of Canada, Bolivia and Chile.
Presently in Earth's orbit there are now about 53 radiation sources. Nine of them are from the U.S. (one of them is a nuclear reactor) and 44 are Russian (most are nuclear reactors).
Nuclear space missions: United States
Putting radioactive isotopes into U.S. deployed spacecraft began under the 'SNAP' program, a joint project of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and NASA. Most of the SNAP 'powerpacks' made by U.S. space agencies incorporated Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators or RTGs.
RTGs contain radioactive isotopes that emit radiation and heat through natural radiation decay. That heat can be used for temperature regulation of spacecraft instrumentation or for conversion into electricity by 'thermocouples.' For this reason, RTGs are sometimes called 'atomic batteries.' They can be built with any of the following radioisotopes: Strontium-90, Curium-242, Plutonium-238 and Polonium-210. Most of the RTGs used in the U.S. space program utilize Plutonium 238, but government scientists used Polonium-210 in earlier spacecrafts (Transit 4A and B) "because it was handy." Since the days of the SNAP program, U.S. spacecraft power system technologies have evolved into thermoelectric (RTG-MHS, Multi-Hundred Watt, and RTG-GPHS, General Purpose Heat Source) and nuclear heat (RHU, Radioisotope Heat Unit) systems, all designed by the U.S. Energy Department.1
Only on one occasion was a SNAP powerpack deployed into space that did not consist of a RTG. That was 'Snapshot,' the 'punny' name of the first nuclear reactor launched into space (technically called OPS/4682 and of the 10A generation of the SNAP program). The 'Snapshot' spacecraft was launched in April 1965 as part of an experiment to see if a nuclear reactor could be subjected to rocket launch, started and operated in orbit. The experimental nuclear reactor, which weighed about 230 pounds and was fueled with Uranium-235, operated for 43 days before failing - it was shut down due to a voltage regulator malfunction.
Snapshot was 'boosted' after its letdown performance into a higher orbit, at 1,300 kilometers above Earth, but experts expect it will come crashing into Earth's atmosphere in about 3,000 years, or sooner if it encounters collisions with other space objects. (Snapshot's uranium has a half life as long as the Earth is old.) A number of RTG-equipped (non-nuclear reactor powered) spacecraft in Earth orbit of U.S. origin will crash into Earth in a timeframe slightly less than Snapshot's.
Over 45 RTGs have powered over two dozen U.S. spacecraft since 1961 including Apollo, Viking, Galileo, and other exploratory craft, as well as many civilian and military satellites. Most of these 45 radiation sources are on other planets in our solar system, beyond our solar system, or on the moon. Eight RTGs are on board U.S. spacecraft that are still orbiting the Earth and three have crashed down to Earth in accidents. Below are the stories of those accidents:
The worst-ever accident involving nuclear materials in the U.S. space program happened in 1964. It was April and the U.S. Navy's Transit-5BN-3 navigation satellite, equipped with a RTG onboard (SNAP-9A), failed to enter orbit and broke up during re-entry into Earth's upper atmosphere. The satellite and its load of plutonium-238, estimated at 2.1 pounds or 17 kilocuries, both disintegrated, and the plutonium-238 - in the form of small particles - became virtually 'stuck' in the upper stratosphere. Atmospheric processes would 'work' on the high altitude plutonium debris, bringing most of the toxic dust down into Earth's lower atmosphere in the 10 years following the accident.
Soil sampling confirmed that plutonium from the SNAP-9A re-entry landed on all continents and at all latitudes. However, because the satellite burned up over the Indian Ocean (and presumably the South Indian Ocean, which is below the equator) and its radioactive debris trails migrated through the layers of our atmosphere more or less in unison with that southerly latitude, the plutonium ended up largely falling on the ground in the Southern Hemisphere - at a proportion about three times the amount deposited in the Northern Hemisphere. This is per the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for NASA's plutonium-powered Cassini mission that stated "About 25 percent ... of [the SNAP-9A release] was deposited in the northern latitudes, with the remaining 75 percent settling in the southern hemisphere..."
Since plutonium-238 is relatively rarely produced in fission - whether it is in fission or hydrogen bombs, or even reactors - the quantity of this odd plutonium isotope introduced to Earth's biosphere from SNAP-9A's re-entry was unprecedented. According to the article 'Nuclear Satellites: Why Has the Government Downplayed Their Risks?' that appeared in the Jan/Feb 1984 issue of the journal Environment: 'The resulting plutonium contamination of the atmosphere and exposed surface areas [from Transit 5BN3's burn-up] was quite great - some three times the total plutonium-238 contamination that had resulted from all the previous nuclear tests.'
The figures mentioned in the Cassini FEIS suggest a two-fold, not three-fold, increase (perhaps because of a contrasting definition of the term 'surface areas'): "The Pu-238 in the atmosphere from weapons tests (about 3.3 x 1014 Bq [9,000 Ci]) was increased by the 1964 reentry and burnup of a Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power (SNAP)-9A RTG, which released 6.3 x 1014 Bq (17,000 Ci)."
Dr. John Gofman, a nuclear scientist who broke away from the nuclear weapons world to rectify false statements by government propaganda over the health impacts of radiation, said in a 1997 interview that he believed the U.S.'s accident involving the SNAP-9A burn-up may be linked with a rise in lung cancer worldwide.
[The chart on this page - illustrating the stratospheric inventory by hemisphere of Snap 9-A plutonium 238 spanning 1964 to 1972 - clearly shows that the SNAP-9A atmospheric burn-up increased the amount of plutonium-238 in our stratosphere 100-fold. Read more in our boxed-feature below titled 'Plutonium 238 - packing quite a punch for a thing so small.' View the graph of Pu-238 in ground level air from 1966-1969 in femtocuries (fCi per cubic meter)2]
Four years later, in May 1968, Nimbus B-1, a non-military meteorological satellite, failed [next page]