10 January 2006
NASA Debates Public Safety Of Pluto Launch


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA's leaders debated on Tuesday whether it's safe to launch the first mission to the planet Pluto -- a mission powered by radioactive plutonium.

The launch is scheduled for next Tuesday, and extraordinary safety precautions are being taken at Cape Canaveral, WESH 2 space specialist Dan Billow reported.

The mission needs clearance from the White House and from NASA's administrator in Washington. The safety debate was under way all afternoon Tuesday, even as teams of radiation specialists make their way to Brevard County to be ready in case of an accident.

Across Brevard County, 16 teams of radiation specialists and two radiological control centers will deploy before Tuesday's launch.

"They've got aircraft, they've got manpower, they've got the vehicles, they've got the most modern sensors probably available in the world today," Bob Lay, Brevard County's emergency operations manager.

The Pluto probe carries 24 pounds of plutonium, which is needed to generate electricity for its cameras and transmitters. The probe will be launched on an Atlas 5 rocket, a new and more powerful version of the rocket never launched before.

If it explodes during liftoff, there is a very small chance the ground could be contaminated with cancer-causing radioactive particles. In fact, a test version of one of the rocket's fuel tanks has ruptured, which could cause just such an explosion.

"So, we're trying to understand why that tank ruptured," said Kennedy Space Center director Jim Kennedy.

Not much time is left. Launch is scheduled for next Tuesday, and the probe must get off the ground by mid-February while Pluto, its target, is within range.

"We do not play games with the public's health and safety. We recognize the importance of that, and it's a part of our charter to make sure that we protect the public," Kennedy said.

NASA has not yet announced any conclusion from Tuesday's top-level safety review, but earlier, Kennedy said it appears experts are leaning toward clearing the rocket for launch.

See also: other articles on New Horizons

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