The Department of Energy wants to produce Plutonium-238, which is NASA’s fuel of choice when it comes to deep-space missions.
People in the United States stopped producing it about thirty years ago. However, on December 22, the Department of Energy stated that researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn, have made fifty grams of that particular fuel.
Plutonium-238 is known to produce heat through radioactive decay, and it is used to power aircrafts. (note: not to be confused with Pu-239) Missions such as the Voyager spacecrafts, the Viking missions on Mars, the New Horizons spacecraft and the Curiosity Mars Rover have all been powered by plutonium-238, according to scientists.
John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said that his teammates at the Department of Energy have made significant achievements that may benefit the exploration of our solar system.
The next generation of landers, planetary orbiters, and rovers will be powered by radioisotope power systems, Grunsfeld stated.
Currently, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) only has access to about seven pounds (35 kilograms) of Plutonium-238 to conduct further space exploration missions. That amount of Plutonium-238 could only power about two or three missions, and it would only last until mid-2020s, scientists say.
Franklin Orr, Under Secretary for Science and Energy at the Department of Energy (DOE), stated that the Department of Energy will offer the power supply needed to explore the Universe even further.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) started a funding campaign to produce Plutonium-238 again. The DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy received $15 million each year from NASA to fund the project.
Plutonium-238 needs to be produced on a larger scale, but researchers have to make sure that it does not lose its purity (as well as other characteristics).
According to Bob Wham, who leads the project for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Nuclear Security and Isotope Technology Division, radioisotope power systems will be produced on a larger scale once the process is scaled up and automated.
The process works – given the initial production of plutonium-238 which was a success – so it is ready to be moved to the next phase, Wham said.
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