Nuclear-Powered Probe Begins Its 2 Billion-Mile Journey

The largest, most expensive, and most controversial interplanetary probe in the history of NASA blasted off yesterday without a hitch.

The mammoth Titan IVB rocket carrying the Cassini spacecraft rocketed through clouds into a moonlit sky well before dawn, and scientists and engineers embraced when Cassini shot out of Earth orbit 40 minutes after liftoff. The first phase of a seven-year, 2 billion-mile journey was now over.

Although the spacecraft's final destination is Saturn, it will go around Venus twice and Earth once for a gravitational acceleration before heading to the ringed planet.

Now that the probe has made it into space without any problems, it is this Earth flyby - which will bring Cassini within 500 miles of Earth in 1999 - that has Cassini opponents worried. With 72 pounds of plutonium aboard Cassini - the most ever flown in space - antinuclear activists fear that if things go wrong the plutonium could be released into Earth's atmosphere.

But there is a less than 1 in a million chance that the probe would reenter Earth's atmosphere and spread plutonium, says the Energy Department's Beverly Cook. The plutonium is needed to power Cassini.

Its $3.4 billion mission won't begin, scientifically, until the spacecraft reaches Saturn in 2004. If all goes well, the two-story robotic explorer will be the first probe to orbit Saturn, doing so 74 times from July 1, 2004 through 2008.

Cassini also will release a probe to land on frigid Titan, Saturn's largest moon and the second-largest moon in the solar system. Scientists say its cold, preserved state could provide clues as to how life evolved on Earth.

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK