Friday, March 25, 2011

NASA briefs county on risks connected to Mars lander launch.

County commissioners got briefed earlier this week on the very small odds that this year's planned Mars Science Laboratory launch could release radioactive material on the Space Coast.

A NASA official put those odds at 0.2 percent

The Mars Science Laboratory - featuring the wheeled rover Curiosity - is scheduled to blast off atop an Atlas V rocket. The launch window opens Nov. 25 and extends through Dec. 18.

The mission will use a nuclear power source fueled by 32 plutonium-dioxide pellets totaling 10.6 pounds, said Steve Brisbin, associate director for Kennedy Space Center operations.

According to NASA computer modeling, here are the odds of a nuclear mishap:

-96.7 percent — successful launch into Earth’s atmosphere

-2.9 percent — accident with no radioactive release

-0.2 percent — accident with radioactive release in the launch area

-0.2 percent — accident with radioactive release over the Atlantic Ocean

"We expect a safe launch. No member of the public has ever been harmed from a NASA launch. We intend to keep it that way," Brisbin told commissioners during Tuesday's regular meeting in Viera.

Regardless, NASA has assembled a multi-agency emergency-response team including Brevard County, U.S. Department of Energy, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Environmental Protection Agency, Air Force, Coast Guard and the state of Florida.

These agencies will deploy 30 environmental-monitoring stations prior to launch, including 19 off-site from KSC.

Bob Lay, county emergency management director, said training is occurring with hospital emergency-room personnel in Brevard, Orange and Volusia counties.

Commissioners did not comment on Brisbin's launch-safety updates.

In other developments, a life-sized demonstration rover will go on display during the Brevard County Fair, which runs March 31 to April 10 at the Wickham Park Pavilion in Melbourne.

Members of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory will answer questions about the mission, Brisbin said.

"This is the largest in the family of rovers," he said of Curiosity. "It's the most sophisticated scientific platform ever launched on a planetary mission for the agency. And it has a lot of capability that we haven’t had before."

-Rick Neale

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