It’s practically beyond belief to see the initial photographs of Pluto we’ve received through the 12-watt transmitter of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft from 3 billion miles away. Stunning high resolutions of rock-hard icy mountains as tall as Hyndman and a toy box full of planetary mysteries for sunny mission astronomers to gleefully analyze in coming years — and this success merely 112 years after the Wright Brothers.
Meanwhile, here on solid Earth, most people have forgotten the protests over the 24 pounds of Idaho made plutonium powering this extraordinary mission. According to the Jan. 16, 2006, N.Y. Times: “NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy put the probability of an early-launch accident that would cause plutonium to be released at 1 in 350 chances.”
The Times also reported in 2006 that NASA estimated the cost of decontamination, should there be a serious accident with plutonium released during the launch, at anywhere from $241 million to $1.3 billion per square mile, depending on the size of the area.
This is not a farfetched scenario. Of the 28 U.S. space missions that used plutonium preceding 2006, three had accidents, the worst in 1964 in which a plutonium-powered satellite broke up and spread toxic radioactivity wide over our planet.
Interestingly, soon after the European Space Agency began using solar energy to power spacecraft past Jupiter, NASA retracted its earlier claims that plutonium would be needed for spacecraft to be operational beyond Mars and admitted that solar will work in deep space. Naturally, this affects the future of highly profitable market of INL plutonium production.
Recently, I read an interesting article that speculated about the increasing speeds we will likely achieve in future space travel. The author suggested that within a few generations, we may develop probes capable of reaching the Outer Oort Belt within a few days. Not only that, but we could even possess the capability of capturing an earlier probe and then retrieving it for education purposes to a contemporary space museum.
If humanity achieves this great ability in another 112 years, I would suggest to future generations that they do not return the New Horizons spacecraft full of deadly plutonium to a museum back on delicate Earth, but rather create a safe outpost museum on faraway Pluto. This would also make a perfectly fitting final resting place for some of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes, which are aboard that very spacecraft, as he was the original discoverer of Pluto.
And if you’ve read his book “Plutonian Ode,” in which leading beat poet Alan Ginsberg protested broadly about this most deadly element under the sun, I think you’ll agree that he probably would have smiled at this pie-in-the-sky idea.
Jim Banholzer is a longtime resident of Ketchum, which is a tremendous center point for stargazing, and he thinks that calling Pluto not a planet is the same as saying that a mini-marshmallow is not a marshmallow.