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N-powered probe gets go-ahead

The White House has approved launching a nuclear-powered planetary probe despite protests that the 72 pounds of plutonium aboard the craft could pose a serious health risk if there is an accident.

John H. Gibbons, chief of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said Friday he approved the launch of the Cassini spacecraft after concluding that "the important benefits of this scientific mission outweigh the potential risks."Gibbons said that NASA and other government agencies had done "an extremely thorough job of evaluating and documenting the safety of the Cassini mission."

NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin said he was "confident in the safety of the Cassini mission."

Cassini is to be launched Oct. 13 from the Kennedy Space Center on a journey of almost seven years toward the planet Saturn. The craft will pick up gravitational momentum by swinging by Venus, and once by Earth and past Jupiter.

NASA engineers said that Saturn is too far from the sun for a probe to be powered by conventional solar cells. As a result, Cassini is equipped with an electrical generator and a heater powered by plutonium. Such nuclear power devices have been used previously on a number of missions, including six Apollo moon flights.