Space Satellite Launches and Re-entries
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Nuclear power is used to provide electricity and maintain constant temperatures aboard many spacecraft. Consequently, satellite launches and reentries carry the risk of becoming radiological incidents.
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Galileo, Ulysses, and Cassini Launches
Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG), General Purpose Heat Source (GPHS), and Light Weight Radioisotope Heater Units (LWRHU) provide power and maintain constant temperatures aboard the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) spacecraft: Galileo, Ulysses, Cassini Mars Exploration Rover Missions and the Pluto New Horizons Mission.
Launched from NASA's space shuttle Atlantis in 1989, Galileo completed a six-year journey to survey Jupiter. Ulysses, launched in 1990, was designed to survey the high-latitude heliosphere of the Sun. Cassini, an interplanetary space mission to Saturn launched in October 1997, carried out a four-year study of the planet Saturn. The Mars Exploration Rovers were dual launches in 2003 sent to the Martian surface to survey and monitor for signs of water/life in the more recent Martian past history. NASA’s most recent probe launch was of the New Horizons probe which was launched in January 2006. The New Horizons probe was designed to explore Pluto, its moon Charon, and the Kuiper Belt.
To prepare for a possible radiological emergency at launch time, NASA and the State of Florida requested EPA and the Department of Energy (DOE) to assist in developing contingency emergency plans. At the time of the launch, EPA deployed response teams equipped and prepared to provide emergency services:
- monitoring for radiation
- sampling air, water, and soil
- determining levels of contamination.
- advising Florida on managing contaminated areas.
Fortunately, all spacecraft were launched without incident.
Cosmos Satellite Re-entry
In 1978 and again in 1988, the former Soviet Union announced that one of its disabled nuclear-powered Cosmos satellites would re-enter the atmosphere. EPA, along with the Departments of Energy and Defense, developed contingency plans in case re-entry over the U.S. caused radioactive fall out. Fortunately, the satellites fell harmlessly onto uninhabited parts of the globe.
In 1978, pieces of a Cosmos satellite fell over the sparsely populated Northwest Territories of Canada. EPA dispatched response personnel to help the Canadians assess the situation. In 1988, a Cosmos satellite failed again, landing in the Atlantic Ocean.
For this Cosmos 1900 satellite, EPA and DOE readied the Radiological Monitoring and Assessment Center in case radiation measurements were needed. EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services also formed a group to advise on possible environmental, food, and health matters.