ARL News

ARL Involvement in the Deep Space Mission to Pluto


January 3, 2006

For more than a decade, ARL has provided leadership of the Meteorology Working Group of the Interagency Nuclear Safety Review Panel, set up by the White House to review safety issues associated with space missions employing nuclear power systems. All deep space missions use nuclear fuels. The most recent is the Pluto New Horizons Mission, now scheduled to be launched on January 17, 2006. The spacecraft will carry a power system employing Pu238.

There are always fears of a launch accident that would distribute fragments of Plutonium across a large area, with potentially severe environmental consequences. In the event of a launch accident occurring, intact Pu238 modules could land as far away as Southern Africa. Out-of-orbit accidents involving an unexpected re-entry of the spacecraft could cause Pu238 to be deposited anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. The radioactivity and the power system using it are the responsibility of the Department of Energy. Accordingly, it is the Department of Energy’s plume dispersion facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that has responsibility for operational forecasts of dispersion should an accident occur.

However, NASA has requested that NOAA/ARL provide oversight and other guidance directly to the mission control personnel. As in the case of other recent deep space missions, Will Pendergrass of ARL Oak Ridge will be present at Cape Canaveral for the launch, and will be running the ARL dispersion models to verify the products generated by the DOE group in California and to provide relevant on-site expertise.

Contact information: Will Pendergrass
Phone: (865) 576-6234