Healing Our World: Weekly Comment
By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

Polluting the Final Frontier

The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character.
So watch the thought and its ways with care,
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings.

-- The Buddha

Space exploration missions have expanded our awareness of the vast universe around us. But they have long polluted the Earth's sensitive upper atmosphere and a new mission, scheduled for launch in 2003, may harm the very life it is hoping to find on Jupiter's moon Europa.

During the last few years of my 20 year career in the U.S. space program, working with robotic space explorers designed by the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) under contract from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), I became deeply troubled by the plans for the new mission I was working on. For the first 14 years of my career there, I worked on and managed mission planning teams. For the last five years, ending last Fall, I managed the educational outreach program for the Outer Planets/Solar Probe Project (OP/SP).


Artist rendering of the Europa Orbiter spacecraft over the icy moon (Photo courtesy NASA)
The JPL OP/SP Project is a series of three space exploration missions that will use robotic spacecraft - no people on board - to explore Jupiter's moon Europa, the planet Pluto and the Sun. Europa is of great interest since the Galileo mission revealed that it has a thick ice sheet that could be covering a vast ocean. Since Europa is seismically active, it is possible that vents on the ocean floor could have heated the water, creating an environment where life could form. There are many examples of deep-sea thermal vents on the floors of Earth's oceans where life abounds.

Although still in the development phase, all three spacecraft currently plan to have plutonium on board to generate heat that is turned into electricity. Known as the Advanced Radioisotope Power Source (ARPS), these devices use approximately 4.8 kilograms of plutonium, arguably the most deadly substance created on Earth, to generate up to 280 watts of electricity.


Drawing of the ARPS (Drawing courtesy NASA/JPL)
Each OP/SP mission plans to have 2 ARPS units onboard to generate the 500 or so watts of power needed to run the spacecraft systems and science instruments. Although there is a risk of the plutonium being released in a disaster during the launch phase, it is what is scheduled to happen at Jupiter's moon Europa that is of greatest concern to me.

After a three to four year journey beginning in 2003 or 2004, the Europa Orbiter spacecraft will reach Jupiter between August 2006 and August 2007, depending on the actual launch date. After about 28 months in the Jupiter system, flying past other Jovian moons, the spacecraft will begin orbiting Europa. The orbital mission is scheduled to last about 30 days.


The icy surface of Europa, a moon of Jupiter (Photo courtesy NASA)
At the end of that 30-day period, the spacecraft will be captured by Europa's gravity and will crash into the icy surface. But what will become of the spacecraft's 9.6 kilograms of plutonium? No one really knows - or cares - at NASA. One scenario is that the ARPS canisters could melt through the ice, falling into the moon's ocean.

So let's get this straight: the Europa Orbiter spacecraft will be exploring Europa from orbit, paving the way for future robotic explorers that might actually search for life. Yet the plutonium it carries will be thoughtlessly dumped into the very oceans that could contain pre-biotic life?

I attended a meeting in April 1998 at JPL hosted by a representative of the Planetary Protection Program from NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. At that meeting, I learned that the U.S. signed the International Space Treaty in 1967. Article IX of that treaty states that

"...parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter..."

NASA has its own interpretation of Article IX. NASA's policy, as described in a handout from the April 1998 meeting, is to "preserve planetary conditions for future biological and organic constituent exploration, and to protect Earth and its biosphere from potential extraterrestrial sources of contamination." This policy is interpreted by project managers and engineers to mean that other worlds must be guarded against microbial contamination from Earth since this would get in the way of future exploration efforts.

The planetary protection policies of NASA do not include the protection of any life (or pre-biotic life) on other worlds from our toxic waste.


Exploring below the ice on Europa with a Hydrobot, a possible future mission after Europa Orbiter. Will there be any life left by then? (Image courtesy NASA)
The managers and engineers at JPL consider policies such as these as obstacles that drain scarce project funds from worthwhile endeavors. There is no respect for the policies within the management structure and only cursory interest in doing the absolute minimum possible to comply with the guidelines.

When I asked why the possible contamination of a new world with plutonium was of no concern to NASA, the Planetary Protection representative told me at that April 1998 meeting that there was simply no written requirement to be concerned about.

When I brought the matter up at the next OP/SP team meeting, the Europa Orbiter project scientist laughed at me and said we had better not talk about such things or it might become an expensive requirement for the mission. He said that the heat and radiation from the ARPS would probably kill any microbe anyway, which would actually be a benefit in complying with the existing guidelines to keep Earth microbes off Europa. He didn't even realize that his explanation had confirmed my fears. The disapproving looks from the rest of the team made it clear to me that there would be no sympathy for my concerns there.


Artist rendition of a lunar strip mine (From W.K. Hartman's "Astronomy, The Cosmic Journey," Wadsworth Publishers)
Shocking as it may seem, it is no surprise to me that such attitudes exist. Space missions are developed and funded by scientists, engineers and political leaders who have been trained by an educational and political system that considers the pollution from toxic industries to be an acceptable consequence of technological advancement.

Are we destined to carry our destructive, wasteful, toxic and immoral technological practices with us into outer space and to other worlds? Why must every artist's conception of the utilization of space include a lunar strip mine or the destruction of an asteroid for its mineral resources?

Will space truly be the final frontier - the final frontier that we pollute and destroy?


1. You can learn of the Europa mission by reading the NASA Announcement of Opportunity at http://spacescience.nasa.gov/aodraft/planets/formats.htm. These documents are designed to instruct potential science investigators how to propose to supply the required instruments for the mission. You will find few references to the ARPS. They were intentionally kept out to minimize public awareness of the use of plutonium for the mission.

2. Learn about the Outer Planets/Solar Probe Project at their website at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/ice_fire//icefire.htm

3. You can see a design for the baseline ARPS at http://dsst.jpl.nasa.gov/DSST_ARPS.html. These are development plans and are subject to change.

4. The NASA Langley Research Center maintains a library of Outer Planets Program documents at http://centauri.larc.nasa.gov/outerplanets/

5. The Cassini spacecraft, now on its way to the planet Saturn, carries over 70 pounds of plutonium and will be having a close flyby of the Earth on its way to the ringed planet in August of this year. Visit a web site with many articles and links about those concerns at http://www.animatedsoftware.com/cassini/cassini.htm

6. Read an article by Michio Kaku, Ph.D., Professor of Theoretical Physics, Graduate Center of the City University of New York about how NASA underestimates the risks of carrying nuclear material on its spacecraft at http://www.rain.org/~openmind/kaku1.htm

7. See the Planetary Protection presentation from April 1998. I have posted it at my own website at http://www.jps.net/jackieg/courses/planet_protect.html

8. Find out who your Congressional representatives are and e-mail them. Demand that they require NASA and JPL to be concerned about toxic contamination of the Earth's atmosphere, near Earth orbit, outer space and other worlds. Tell them that NASA is in violation of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. If you know your Zip code, you can find them at http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/ziptoit.html or you can search by state at http://www.webslingerz.com/jhoffman/congress-email.html. You can also find your representatives at http://congress.nw.dc.us/innovate/index.html

9. Email your concerns to:

  • Dr. Edward Stone, Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at [email protected]
  • Dr. Charles Elachi, Director of the JPL Space and Earth Science Directorate at [email protected]
  • Richard O'Toole, Manager of the JPL Legislative and International Affairs Office at [email protected]
  • Send a letter to Daniel Golden, the head of NASA at Mr. Daniel S. Goldin, NASA Administrator, NASA Headquarters, 300 E St. SW, Mail Code A, Washington, DC 20456


Visit the Healing Our World Archive and check out the many resource links in past articles.

{Jackie Giuliano, a writer and a Professor of Environmental Studies, can be found in Los Angeles, California, wondering what would have happened if callous space visitors had visited the Earth before life as we know it evolved. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at [email protected] and visit his web site at www.healingourworld.com}

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