Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL (October 15 [2:25 a.m. Pacific]) -- After overcoming last Monday's technical gremlins, Mother Nature and a last-ditch legal effort by anti-nuclear activists, NASA successfully launched the controversial Cassini space probe in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday morning.
Generating 3.4 billion pounds of thrust, the 183-foot-tall Lockheed Martin-built Titan IV-B rocket lifted off on-time at 1:43 a.m. PDT, punching through a low-level deck of clouds into an otherwise clear, moonlit night. The original flight was postposed two days from last Monday morning due to strong upper-level winds, and technical problems with an onboard computer and a piece of ground support equipment.
Named for the 17th century Italian-French astronomer Jean Dominique Cassini, the deep-space probe is scheduled to make a seven-year trip to the ringed planet in July 2004 for a four-year study of the planet Saturn. Cassini is equiped with a probe named Huygens -- named for Christian Huygens, the Dutch astronomer who discovered Saturn's largest satellite, Titan in 1655. The Huygens probe will parachute down to the surface of Titan in November of 2004.
Considered the last of the "Grand Voyager" missions, Cassini is a joint effort between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. Total costs for the mission tops out at $3.4 billion, of which $1.4 billion went into the development of the space probe. The remaining $2 billion goes towards the launch costs of the Titan IV-B booster, plus the seven-year, deep-space transit and four-year orbital mission around the ringed planet.
In a last-ditch effort to stop the mission, anti-nuclear activists filed an appeal before a three-judge Federal panel in San Francisco earlier today, due to concerns over the use of 72 pounds of plutonium-238 stored aboard three Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) as its power source.
Opponents considered Cassini to be a threat to the world environment if the Titan IV-B booster were to explode at launch (odds of 1 in 450 to 1 in 1,500 according to NASA), or during a planned "fly-by" of Earth in 1999 (a risk of 1 in a million), releasing a toxic and radioactive cloud into the atmosphere. The panel turned down the appeal, clearing the final hurtle to launch the mission.
Approximately 70 people held a candlelight vigil in Washington, D.C., "bearing witness" in front of the White House last Sunday evening protesting the use of nuclear power in space. An unconfirmed report earlier this evening stated eight protesters were seen outside the main gate of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at the time of launch.
Contact: Jim Spellman
Tel/Fax: (760) 379-2503
Proposition One Committee