Most of the immediate news reports seemed to suggest that a catastrophe had been avoided, on the grounds that the Russian probe was not expected to have broken up. The plutonium powerplant on the probe is designed to 'probably' survive an uncontrolled, tumbling reentry followed by colliding with water at hundreds or even thousands of miles per hour, (hard as cement at those speeds) and sink to the seabed at an unknown depth in an unknown place. I have even heard the phrase "fell harmlessly to earth" used.
If indeed the plutonium fell to earth intact, it is probably true that it would be 'relatively' harmless. Plutonium is not nearly as dangerous when in solid blocks. You can even hold it. (Though I wouldn't want to go to bed with it each night.) It is when it is dispersed, and especially when it is pulverized into the atmosphere that it is dangerous. If the plutonium pack stayed intact, the worst danger might well have been from it falling on a fisherman (or a fish). But if it got pulverized-and we don't know if it did or didn't--but if it did get pulverized, look out!
It is criminal to be using plutonium in outer space. Because of the dangers cited in other articles at this web site (see links below) there is simply no reasonable guarantee that plutonium-packed probes will be perfectly placed in their planned projectories. There is too much debris up there already for any reasonable guarantee. Recently (November 17th, 1996) an American space worker quoted on CNN pointed out that the United States tracks some 8,000 pieces of space debris greater in size than 4 inches (about 10 cm.). Why is this so bad? Can't we just avoid the stuff, since we're tracking so much of it? No.
First of all, we cannot track those thousands of pieces very well. And even if we could, I am not aware of how much of that information is shared even today with Russia and other space agencies. And even if the information is freely shared, we might then ask how much of it was actually used by the Russians to 'snake' their way up into outer space? It is an incredibly complex and costly analysis requiring many CPU cycles of a supercomputer. Or you can just chance it.
Second, a piece far smaller than the ones we can track, even a piece the size of a BB, can do horrendous damage to anything it collides with, because of the incredible speeds at which things travel through space. Collision with a piece of existing space debris may be why the fourth stage failed in the first place. And if such a piece collided with the probe at any time in its orbit, it could smash the plutonium's casing like it was made of butter, and vaporize some or all of the plutonium.
It is the very fact that most of the time plutonium is NOT broken up and scattered widely that allows people to think this stuff can be handled at all--few deny its extreme deadliness even if they argue the concept of no minimum lethal dose. And just what is the 'best' method of distribution of plutonium, if you want to kill people all over the earth in one of the most horrible ways imaginable? It is to spread it in microscopic pieces throughout the atmosphere.
This may have actually happened November 17th, 1996. It is not known what happened. It may not even be possible to discover for sure what really did happen, because if the powerpack broke up we probably could NEVER recover all the little pellets (each about the size of a pencil eraser tip) that were in it even if we could find the general area where the pieces fell--if they fell. Each pellet we fail to find may be one that was knocked loose and pulverized in the upper atmosphere. I am not aware of any efforts to salvage the pieces so that we could know, one way or the other, what happened.
If the worst happened, the only way we might be able to tell that it had happened is that over the next twenty years, lung cancer cases will increase. If the damage was 'minimal' then lung cancers might increase by only a small fraction of a percent. Millions of people, but only a small fraction of a percent. In other words, if only a few grams of the 200 total grams of material were to have burned up and spread through the upper atmosphere, it might take it years to fall to earth (breathing level) where it can lodge in living thing's lungs. Then it takes as much as 20 years or more to turn into cancer. And if this only happens to a fraction of a percent of people, it might be very difficult to identify the cause, or even notice that it is happening. Yet, tens of thousands, or even millions of people can die and still no one can prove what is happening! And of course, the fools that launched the probe will have long retired and misplaced their old scientific notes.
There is no known cure for most cancers. Sometimes, you can remove the cancerous organ. However most organs, you need. Sometimes you can kill the bad cells with chemotherapy or some other horrific treatment, at great risk to the rest of the body. Sometimes you can transplant a 'new' organ if you can find a suitable donor, with great stress to the body and grave risk of rejection.
Plutonium causes mutations in the nucleus of living cells. Sometimes these mutations are harmless. Sometimes they simply kill the cell which usually isn't too bad, if not too many cells get killed. But sometimes the cell mutates into something that reproduces itself quickly. Mutated cells multiply and take over nearby cells or break off and travel through the bloodstream and lodge elsewhere in the body, or stay in the blood and destroy the blood itself. If a reproductive cell is mutated, genetic mutations are possible as well, and offspring suffer the consequences.
Mutation is not necessarily a bad thing, but it usually is a bad thing. In fact, the vast majority of times, it's a bad thing. The human being is an awesomely sophisticated entity. It is one of the longest living animals, certainly the most intelligent. It thinks it's the most compassionate. It controls its environment.
It is not likely that a mutation will occur that will render plutonium poisoning harmless to some future generation of humans and other living things. Resistance to random mutations does not 'evolve' as can resistance to disease. It probably wouldn't even be good if we as a species somehow evolved to be more resistant to mutation in general. Wouldn't such resistance also make us more vulnerable to the rapidly changing environment around us? We need to be able to evolve, but an accelerated rate of random mutation causes cancer and genetic mutations, and is not a good thing.
In ten years the power consumption of the computers used in the space probes will probably be one tenth (1/10th) the power consumption of today's devices, for the same amount of computing power. Motors too are getting lighter and stronger because of newer ceramics, new bearings, etc. Would a ten or even a twenty year wait really matter that much if we could improve the technology substantially? There are plenty of places mankind has been unable to explore because it's too dangerous. For instance we haven't visited a far more interesting place--below the mantle of the earth! Why not? It's too dangerous! Why don't we visit the sun? Too dangerous! Plutonium is too dangerous to use! So we either find another way, or we don't do it!
The ONLY reason the plutonium was on board the spacecraft, by the way, was to power the electronics and electromechanical devices. That's it! A battery! For this we risk literally millions, or even tens of millions of lives?
There is one more issue. What if the probe's retro engines failed to ignite and the probe smashed into Mars at 70,000 miles an hour? The plutonium would probably be smashed to smithereens and scattered for miles around or burn up in Mars' atmosphere. What a wonderful way to introduce ourselves to another planet! Plutonium-238, which the rocket used, has a half-life of 87.8 years. Any species of intelligent life that received one of our strange plutonium packages would probably consider it an act of ecological warfare.
Or perhaps, after successfully studying the place, we will abandon our probe and Mars for 1000 years or so, having found nothing very useful, or having lost the ability to go for some reason. Some later civilization might revisit the desolate planet, perhaps this time in need of a new permanent place to live, having finally poisoned the home garden. They will still find remnants of these plutonium "dead zones" placed there by some by-then-unknown previous visitor. "There must have been a terrible accident" they will say. "No wonder the place is deserted" they will say. "Who would have done this?" they will ask. "My gosh, it was us!" they will realize.
America has launched nearly two dozen plutonium-packed missions, including, on December 4th, 1996, its own Mars mission called Pathfinder which included about 1/2 ounce of plutonium (probably purchased from Russia). This is absurd. I am not aware of how many have been lost but any of them can be, and there is absolutely no defense against space debris. Late in 1997 NASA is planning a major plutonium launch. It's called Cassini and will include (if we let it happen) over 72 pounds of plutonium! Let's stop this madness before the disaster we are flirting with occurs--or occurs again, if that's the case.
Show this document to your friends. Email them the URL (see below) so they can read it online (and get the latest version) or give them a printed copy.
Please read the related documents at this web site (see below), and please contact each of our Government's leaders, and pressure the space community to never put humankind in so much danger for so little gain. We support space exploration and discovery, but we feel it should be accomplished in a reasonable, safe and clean manner. (I personally believe that NASA's budget should be substantially increased, despite the objections raised in this letter!)
by Russell D. Hoffman
The author would like to add the following to this electronically-circulated World Wide Web Internet Page:
First that citizens of other countries, especially the Soviet Union, must also tell their governments to stop this pollution. This is a global problem if ever there was one!
Also, if anyone would be willing to translate this document to other languages the author would appreciate your effort. Please contact the author if you would be willing to do this.
Please distribute this document IN ITS ENTIRETY (as a raw HTML file or printed document) or request written permission to excerpt. Please link to it rather than placing it on another server.Thank you.
The Animated Software Company
First placed online November 18th, 1996.
Last modified March 28th, 1997.
Webwiz: Russell D. Hoffman
Copyright (c) Russell D. Hoffman