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NASA is prepared for the risks of launching nuclear-powered rover

The payload fairing, or nose cone, containing the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover sits atop the motorized payload transporter that will carry it to Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The image was taken on July 7, 2020. (NASA/KSC/TNS)

Every rocket launch is inherently dangerous, but the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission has an added risk of releasing radioactive material used to power the rover if something goes wrong.

But the risk of any radioactive material being released over the Space Coast is extremely low, NASA officials say, and the likelihood of anybody being harmed by it is even lower.

“Within that first minute or so is the only chance that we have of the launch area really being put under concern,” explained Bob Holl, the NASA official leading the radiological response planning for the launch scheduled for July 30.

“The most probable outcome of the launch is a successful mission. That’s certainly why NASA is using the most reliable launch vehicle that is out there,” he said.

The Perseverance rover is set to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on July 30 and journey to Mars to explore and for the first time ever collect rock samples.

To power the rover during its perilous mission on the Red Planet, it’s equipped with a nuclear generator which is an updated version of the same one used on the Curiosity rover.

Built by the Department of Energy, the “radioisotope thermoelectric generator” contains 10.6 pounds of plutonium dioxide as a heat source to produce electricity on the rover and warm its internal systems during the freezing Martian nights.

According to NASA the chances of a catastrophic nuclear incident is very small.

There is about a 1 in 1,100 chance of an accident that would release some amount of plutonium dioxide within 62 miles of the launch site.

The fuel is surrounded by several layers of protective material and is manufactured in a ceramic form that resists being broken into fine pieces, reducing the chance that hazardous material could become airborne or ingested.

In the unlikely event of a release of radioactive fuel in the launch area, the estimated maximum dose of radiation an individual might receive is about 210 millirem which is similar to the amount an airline flight attendant receives annually while flying.

On average Americans receive a radiation dose of 620 millirem each year from natural and man-made sources such as cosmic rays from space, radon in the Earth’s soil and medical procedures like a dental x-ray according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“The launch area in terms of where debris could fall would be the actual Air Force station,” NASA’s Steve Cole explained, “but if the wind is blowing inland then there’s the potential, if there’s an accident and if radiological materials have been released it could move in the air inland into Brevard County.

Kennedy Space Center’s Holl leads the 100-plus person team ready to respond to a radiological emergency. They have been training for three years for this mission which included a simulation exercise with the Depart of Energy.

About half the team will be in the field supporting the sensors that measure radioactive levels which are located throughout Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Brevard. The other half of the team are analyzing that data, determining actions and communicating with the public if anything happens.

“The best thing to go do is shelter in place. If you are outside, go indoors. If you’re in a car, roll up your windows and limit the intake of outside air,” Holl said.

“Mostly we’re worried about it coming down and settling into the soil and it’s going to be absorbed into your vegetables or your livestock might eat the grass,” said Jesi Ray, social media specialist for Brevard County EOC which has worked hand in hand with NASA on the emergency response.

NASA is working closely with representatives with the state of Florida, the 45th Space Wing, Department of Environmental Protection and Brevard County to be able to quickly disseminate information to residents if necessary. Two representative from Brevard will be on location at Kennedy Space Center during the launch to communicate safety instructions on social media.

“The coordination is extremely tight because literally these people are sitting next to each other in the same room to help coordinate,” Cole said.

To receive emergency messages directly from the Brevard County Emergency Management, text BrevardEOC (all one word) to the number 888777.

Launches carrying radioactive material are not not new to Brevard. The last launch from the Space Coast that carried a radioactive risk factor was the Mars Curiosty rover in 2011. Before that it was the New Horizons mission to Pluto in 2000. All launched successfully with no incident.

“Just be ready in case the worst thing happens but it’s a great opportunity and the most likely outcome to see a new spacecraft on its way to Mars,” Holl said.


© 2020 The News-Journal