Cassini questions posed to the editor of the STOP CASSINI newsletter by a Japanese news service, which visited the editor at his office in September, 1998:

Question #1: When does Saturn explorer Cassini approach closest to Earth? How close will it come?

NASA expects the probe to do the flyby of Earth in August, 1999. The closest moment is scheduled to occur August 18th, 1999. It will come less than 800 kilometers from Earth at that time, flying at nearly 70,000 kilometers per hour. NASA raised the altitude of the flyby from 500 kilometers to 800 kilometers a few months prior to launch in 1997, hopefully due to the many protests they received. They gave a reason, but it was unspecific. In other words, they said they raised it to keep the overall risk of reentry less than one in one million, but they didn't say what caused them to think they might have exceeded that magic number they claim to have achieved. It's voodoo science and should be debunked. Even if it isn't voodoo science it's something worse: it's hidden science, since the full details of the various weights they assign to everything is unknown, and getting any information from them at all is nearly impossible. For example, how have they calculated the effect years later of some miscellaneous bolt that was not tightened properly in the first stages of construction? What sort of software bugs might affect the command sequence? What chance of failure did they assign to space debris hitting the antenna base or coupling? Space debris is something NASA has miscalculated by several orders of magnitude in the past.

NASA assigned specific numbers for all this stuff, added it all together and that's how they came up with the risk factor of one in one million, but most of what they came up with were just wild guesses and the grand total is nothing more than a big guess made of thousands of smaller guesses.

Question #2: Why does Cassini come near Earth?

Cassini will be doing what is known as a "gravity assist". The move changes the direction of the probe somewhat and adds tremendous relative speed to enable Cassini to make it all the way to Saturn. However, there were other possibilities and the move was actually unnecessary. Not only did NASA not need to carry the deadly plutonium in the first place because the Europeans have developed solar deep-space solutions, but they didn't really need to use Earth for the flyby maneuver at all either! NASA could have arranged to do the flyby using only other planets -- not Earth! (Cassini has already done a flyby of Venus).

This is one of the aspects of the mission which makes NASA's decision to use this dangerous option so peculiar. The Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators simply provide a modest amount of electricity for the mission. They are not "mission critical" as NASA would claim. In short, NASA didn't need to use them, so why did they do it? It is because the United Stated Government wants the public to accept nuclear launches for other purposes, such as military, and as a way to remove unwanted radioactive materials from Earth -- by blasting them out into space, a truly mad-scientist idea.

But in fact these launches should be stopped now and forever.

Question #3: What is the probability that Cassini would fall to Earth?

NASA claims that there is less than a "one in one million" chance of the probe slamming into Earth during the flyby maneuver. But this is the same NASA that estimated in 1963 that the SNAP 9A probe with a kilogram of plutonium had a one in ten million (1 in 10,000,000) chance of reentry into Earth's atmosphere, but it did. NASA was wrong. This is the same NASA that estimated that Challenger had a one in one hundred thousand (1 in 100,000) chance of catastrophic accident, but it blew up with a loss of all seven astronauts on board. And this is the same NASA which touted the Titan launch vehicle as one of the safest ever, which was used for Cassini, and which lost their second Titan in August, 1998 and then two weeks later, they lost the greatest new rocket, or what was supposed to be the greatest new rocket, called the Delta III. The only thing worse, really, than NASA's failure rate, is their consistent inability to accurately estimate that same awful failure rate. So in answer to what is the probability, only a fool would trust NASA's meaningless numbers! It's up there, it's coming back mighty, mighty close to us on purpose and if anything goes wrong, it's packing one heck of a punch.

Question #4: How could Cassini fall to Earth?

Between now and the flyby, if Cassini is lost for any reason, that is, if it stops sending signals back so that we can track it, or if its reception antennas fail for any reason and we cannot communicate with it, it becomes a deadly poisoned pill in an orbit around the Sun which will be roughly the same as our own Earth's orbit. This would be very, very bad. It could lead to a collision with Earth decades or even centuries later, by which time NASA's fancy containment system for the plutonium payload may have become brittle and cracked, and no longer work. Most people who oppose Cassini today worry about the upcoming flyby, but I worry most about the time between now and then. If the probe is lost at any time in its flight, it is too small to be found and will pose an incredible danger to Earthlings for centuries. And we won't see it coming. We might not even see it hit us! A few wacky dosimeter readings, and perhaps decades later, an almost imperceptible increase in Cancer rates. Those might be the only clues. Japan has a holiday in honor of statistics, do they not? I hope they will look at the statistics of what Cassini can do.

NASA claims to be "biasing" the Cassini space probe away from Earth as it approaches us for the flyby, so that if anything goes wrong, it will miss Earth. But this so-called "bias" is a trivial amount, first of all -- only a fraction of a percent of 1 degree of arc, probably. For most of the trip, it's barely even a correctable amount of difference! Second of all, it would still leave the probe capable of coming back at a later date. If it is lost for any reason, its trajectory around the solar system will be unknown and unpredictable. Third, this so-called "bias" actually means that during the last few days before the flyby of Earth, NASA must actually fire the rockets on board Cassini in order to bias the probe back again, closer and closer towards Earth. They actually will fire the rockets to aim the probe towards Earth, and if any of these staged maneuvers results in an extended burn of the firing mechanism (as has happened with past NASA probes, which were thus lost in space (for example, Clementine)) that could be the ultimate cause of the disaster. I will continue hoping even up to the last few days before the flyby, that the world will suddenly become sane, at least temporarily, and forbid NASA from executing the unbiasing maneuver.

Question #5: In the case of Cassini crashing into Earth, what disaster would be caused?

It depends on many factors. First of all, what attitude is the probe in when it comes crashing into Earth's atmosphere and heats up in a few seconds to 10's of thousands of degrees celsius? Will it be stable, or spinning, or tumbling, or "side-on-stable" as NASA refers to one orientation, or what? It matters a great deal, because NASA's published release rates for these various configurations vary from 3% of the plutonium being released as respirable particles, to 33%, to 66%, to even 97% or more. NASA seems sure that if by chance the probe crashes to Earth, luck will have it that it will be in what NASA considers the safest of these many configurations, but they don't really know. They are guessing -- voodoo science again.

In reality, anywhere from a kilogram, to up to the full load of nearly 30 kilograms of plutonium 238 (mostly) and plutonium 239, and a few other isotopes, could be released. But even a fraction of a kilogram of plutonium 238 is enough to kill -- by cancer, leukemia, or other health effect -- every man, woman, and child on the planet -- if you simply give everyone an equal portion of the whole. So even 3% could be an enormous and unnecessary tragedy. There are 270 billion (270,000,000,000) potentially lethal doses on board Cassini, and they may not spread out so nicely as NASA hopes. They may cluster.

The risk should have been avoided in the first place by replacing the nuclear fuel with solar panels. NASA could have done it, and should have done it.

A Cassini flyby accident could release literally millions of millions (10^12) of respirable particles of plutonium. A "guaranteed" lethal dose of plutonium is an invisibly-small particle -- you cannot even see it. A Cassini flyby accident or other reentry accident would not incinerate the plutonium. Although plutonium dioxide is very hot and can ignite fires when it is in chunks, plutonium does not in fact burn in a reentry accident, it vaporizes -- turns to very fine powder.

Vaporized plutonium can take weeks, months, or even years to fall to Earth, but most assuredly, it does fall eventually, then it might even be resuspended again. It is generally from 1 to 10 microns in size; which is even smaller than a "guaranteed" lethal dose, -- thousands of times smaller. But it is not a harmless dose, and it will be given to virtually everyone. With plutonium, even a single solitary atom of it can cause cancer or leukemia or genetic defects or other health effects if it is inhaled or ingested, as vaporized plutonium will be. It does its damage at the molecular level -- the product of its decay (an alpha particle) can damage the fragile DNA which most of our trillions and trillions of cells have. Roughly 50% of all plutonium-induced cancers are fatal even in developed countries; a far greater percentage are fatal in third-world countries. For NASA to risk spreading this amount of such a deadly poison throughout our ecosystem with nearly six billion souls on board is distressing, to say the least! Vaporized plutonium is the most dangerous form of it, because it can be inhaled. Even once it has settled to Earth it can still be ingested (consumed) by mammals and other lifeforms. Ingestion is perhaps several orders of magnitude less dangerous than inhalation (perhaps less) but it is not guaranteed safe, either. It is all a crap-shoot.

Question #6: Do you think NASA considers the possibility of Cassini crashing into Earth? If you think so, how much damage does NASA predict?

NASA has very few concerns. If you push them really hard on the idea that the amount of plutonium 238 they are using is dangerous, they will assure you that it cannot possibly be released. If you convince them that even their own documentation indicates it can, possibly, be released, they will tell you that anything that might be released will be spread so thin into the upper atmosphere that it will cause only an unnoticeable number of deaths, which they consider statistically insignificant. They claim, for example, that although as many as five billion of the Earth's population might absorb a dose, only about 130, or one in four million, would be likely to develop a "health effect" (1997 SEIS). But it really depends on many things. This is an average they have made up from thousands of separate and different disaster scenarios. It is NOT a true "worst case" scenario, although NASA presents their averaged accident as such. (That's the "Monte Carlo" simulation they do).

It's as if they referred to the worst possible car accident as one in which your car sustains minimal damage, because that is what most car accidents are. It ignores even a broken leg, it ignores deaths (except 130), it ignores more than five billion people absorbing a dose. It ignores reality.

Bonus Question #7: What is a true Worst Case Scenario?

Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine said that the folks at NASA "underestimate the cancer alone by 2,000 to 4,000 times" but even there, Dr. Sternglass is assuming the more likely scenario of a fairly even dispersal throughout the atmosphere. It is possible that Cassini will come down directly on a major metropolis, like Tokyo, Mexico City, New York, or anywhere else there are teaming masses. Winds may not favor a widespread dispersal by any means -- it might tend to stay clustered in a small area, and if that is a place where lots of people are -- that is the TRUE "worst case" scenario. The death, the pain and suffering, the loss of face and the financial losses that would occur -- these things are so terrible as to be beyond the ability to comprehend them. Cassini carries over 400,000 Curies of highly radioactive plutonium -- that is as many Curies of plutonium as the amount released from all the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, which now nearly everyone agrees was a health disaster for the world. Cassini in one shot can equal that total, and more, since all of those tests (except the second and third) were purposely done away from populated areas. Cassini could come down anywhere and touch all of us.

This page was revised 10/3/98 11:15:28 AM by The NoFlyby Webmaster

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