Nuclear Technology in Space

NASA, US Navy and Air Force have conducted over 27 space missions utilising radioistope power systems and radioisotope heater units in partnership with the Department of Energy.

Mission Year Agency Regions
Transit 4a 1961 Navy Earth- Navy Navigation Satelitte
Transit 4B 1961 Navy Earth – Navigation Satelitte
Transit 5-BN-1 1963 Navy Earth – Navigation Satelitte
Transit 5-BN-2 1963 Navy Earth – Navigation Satelitte
Nimbus III 1969 NASA Earth – Weather Satelitte
Apollo 11 1969 NASA Moon Surface
Apollo 12 1969 NASA Moon Surface
Apollo 14 1971 NASA Moon Surface
Apollo 15 1971 NASA Moon Surface
Pioneer 10 1971 NASA Jupiter
Apollo 16 1972 NASA Moon Surface
Triad-01-1X 1972 Navy Earth – Navigation Satelitte
Apollo 17 1972 NASA Moon Surface
Pioneer 11 1973 NASA Jupiter, Saturn
Viking 1 1975 NASA Mars Surface
Viking 2 1975 NASA Mars Surface
Lincoln Experimental Satelitte 8 1976 Air Force Earth – Communications Satellite
Lincoln Experimental Satelitte 9 1976 Air Force Earth – Communications Satellite
Voyager 2 1977 NASA Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. Interstellar Space
Voyager 1 1977 NASA Jupiter, Saturn, Interstellar Space
Galileo 1989 NASA Venus, Asteroid Belt, Jupiter
Ulysses 1990 NASA Jupiter, Sun, Comets
Pathfinder-Sojourner 1996 NASA Mars Surface
Cassini-Huygens 1997 NASA Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Titan
Pluto New Horizons 2006 NASA Jupiter, Pluto, Kuiper Belt
Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity 2011 NASA Mars Surface


Nuclear Waste falling from the Skies

When we talking about Nuclear Waste, the sort of places you’d imagine it turning up are either at sea or on a landfill site, but many are oblivious to the toxic radioactive hazards circling above our heads daily, in the form of ageing radioisotope-thermonuclear generators – a legacy of military and commercial space ventures dating as far back as the early 1960’s.

Did Nuclear Weapons tests damage our Ozone Layer?

An interesting letter appeared in the Sheffield Star back in March 2015 arguing the possibly of the Ozone Layer being damaged by decades of Atmospheric Nuclear Bomb tests -until they were banned by an international treaty. They sort of claim you’d think we’d have heard debated for years already. The science sure adds up – something New Zealand based scientists Bill Hartley has researched in depth. 

Hartley believes “Starfish Prime”, a upper atmospheric nuclear test by the U/.S that is witnessed in 1962, is partly to blame for the ozone hole.

“The light show was something unearthly and huge. For fun some weeks before, I had read Revelations, so I was shocked to see the moon glowing red in the now pink rays of light expanding from the central ball of golden light.”

He connected the event with the hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s when he read Earth’s Aura – a layman’s guide to the atmosphere in which author Louise B Young discussed the destructive effects atmospheric nuclear testing could have on ozone. “This rang a very loud bell for me in that gradual depletion of ozone by chemical reactions would lead to a generalised thinning of the layer as the pollutants spread throughout the atmosphere, whereas massive nuclear blasts in the upper atmosphere would produce instant holes,” Mr Hartley said.

With the rise of the global warming phenomena everyone was overlooking the probability that the ozone hole was largely involved. Yet they were pointing the finger at fossil fuel burning emissions. After some research Hartley discovered the US tested 331 bombs in the atmosphere, six above the US and the rest above the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean with some in the South Atlantic.

Russia also tested bombs in the atmosphere above their own country. Mr Hartley believed that had produced a hole over the Arctic, which would explain the rapid ice melting in places such as Greenland.

The air had been loaded with industrially used CFCs in the fifties and sixties when the atomic testing took place.

“Thus when the nuclear bombs were detonated the huge amount of light released activated the massive release of chlorine which gobbled up a gigantic hole in the ozone.”

Of course us Greens *know* this has the potential to downplay the ever deepening causes for climate change =- and we accept there may be many factors but we cannot deny humanity’s disrespect for planet earth, by whatever means done are the factors we still have the chance to change – or at least lessen in future.

Hartley didn’t think anything could be done about the hole in the ozone layer but he thought climate scientists should add the piece of information to the puzzle.

Considering catastrophic global climate change is looking inevitable – it’s no comfort to think there’s a chance we’d already screwed up our planetary defense shield way before we even know it’s significance in protection us all from Cosmos rays.

Ironic in a way, the very thing we may have used (the awesome but unforgiving power of radioactivity) – have have lost us the only thing out there safeguarding us all from that same fate, which one way or another could lead to our ultimate extinction.

Don’t forget to duck and cover, and wear sunscreen!

David Joseph Henry

List of Nuclear Accidents: in Space

There have been over a dozen serious incidents involving Nuclear Power in space. Despite aiming to provide a source of energy for various satellites and exploration probes in orbit and beyond, many have resulted in dispersals of highly radioactive materials throughout the Earth’s atmosphere.

Nukes in Space

United States

The United States has launched the most missions (at least 22 that we know about) with nuclear power sources, the most serious have been complied by Greens Against Nuclear Power below. At least three accidents resulted in the release of radioactive materials. One experimental space reactor (aboard SNAP 9-A) was launched in 1965, what remains of the stricken satellite is now in a 3,000-year orbit.

SNAP 9-A, April 1964: Launched aboard a Department of Defense weather satellite that failed to reach orbit. Reactor, as designed, released radioactive contents in upper atmosphere during re-entry and then burned. Remnants struck the Indian Ocean. Total of 2.1 pounds of plutonium-238 vaporized in atmosphere and spread worldwide.

SNAP 19, May 1968: Meteorological satellite. Nuclear fuel, 4.2 pounds of uranium-238, stayed intact and was recovered off Southern California coast and reused.

Apollo 13, 1970: Nuclear material, 8.3 pounds of plutonium-238, inside lunar module when it was jettisoned before return to Earth. Now at bottom of South Pacific Ocean near New Zealand. Sampling so far shows no radiation leak.

USA-193, February 21, 2008:  The military spy satellite malfunctioned shortly after launch,  then intentionally destroyed 14 months later. Speculation suggests “hazardous materials” and perhaps a nuclear-isotope powered reactor core were on board, and that the craft was destroyed to prevent technology falling into enemy hands.

Russia / Soviet Union

The former Soviet Union (CCCP) and Russia have both been responsible for a number of significant radiological releases into Earth’s atmosphere as a result of their space programme. Like the United States it is believe many more missions than have been revealed to the public may have launched over the years, a summary of the accidents known are as follows.

COSMOS 305, January 1969: Soviet unmanned lunar rover lost rocket power and stayed in orbit, dispersing radiation in upper atmosphere.

Soviet lunar probe, Fall 1969: Unmanned lunar probe burned up and created detectable amounts of radioactivity in the upper atmosphere. Any surviving debris from incident presumed to be on the ocean floor.

RORSAT, April 1973: Soviet satellite launch failed; reactor fell into Pacific Ocean north of Japan. Radiation detected.

COSMOS 954, January 1978: Launch failed; 68 pounds of uranium-235 survived fall through the atmosphere and spread over a wide area of Canada’s Northwest Territories. Canadian-U.S. teams cleaned up; no detectable contamination found.

COSMOS 1402, 1982: Failed launch; reactor core separated from spacecraft and fell to Earth separately in February 1983, leaving radioactive trail in atmosphere and landing in South Atlantic Ocean. Not known if any radioactive debris reached Earth surface or ocean.

COSMOS 1900, April 1988: Soviet radar reconnaissance satellite failed to separate and boost the reactor core into a storage orbit, but backup system managed to push it into orbit some 50 miles below its intended altitude.

COSMOS 1402, February 1993: Crashed into the South Atlantic carrying 68 pounds of uranium-235.

MARS96, November 1996: Disintegrated over Chile or Bolivia, possibly spreading its payload of nearly a half pound of plutonium.

Kosmos 1818,  4 July 2008:  An object hit and cracked a coolant tube which formed part of  the 1987 launched military satellite’s (highly-enriched) uranium oxide-powered TOPAZ reactor. The craft shattered into pieces, some are still being tracked.

Other Countries

Its not known if any other of nations that may have utilised nuclear technology as part of their space programmes, however if it hasn’t already happened it may be a real possibility in future. With the emergence of new global superpowers, who have both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy resources such as China and India currently expanding their expansion of their own military and scientific missions. Iran and North Korea also have the ability to put nuclear technology into space although it’s doubtful if they would any-time soon.

Sources: WikiPedia, NASA, Christian Science Monitor, International Atomic Agency, Greenpeace

See also:  List of Nuclear Accidents: at Sea (coming soon)