Plutonium-238: US Department of Energy Produces Plutonium for NASA's Future Deep-Space Missions
Plutonium-238: US Department of Energy Produces Plutonium for NASA's Future Deep-Space Missions

Plutonium-238: “US Department of Energy” Produces Plutonium for NASA’s Future Deep-Space Missions

Plutonium-238 is the fuel of NASA’s choice for deep-space exploration. But for nearly 30 years, nobody in the United States was making it.

Now, to make up for the shortfall, the US Department of Energy announced that 50 grams of the substance has been made at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee. While 50 grams is not a large amount, especially compared to the 4 kilograms of plutonium-238 the Mars 2020 rover would require, it marks the first time the material has been made on American soil in nearly three decades.

Plutonium-238 powers Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (MMRTGs) — the batteries used by missions such as Voyager, Curiosity, and New Horizons, and are manufactured by the DoE.

“This significant achievement by our teammates at DOE signals a new renaissance in the exploration of our solar system,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said, in a statement released Tuesday. “Radioisotope power systems are a key tool to power the next generation of planetary orbiters, landers and rovers in our quest to unravel the mysteries of the universe.”

The highly radioactive plutonium-238 is different from the plutonium used in nuclear weapons and power stations. As plutonium-238 decays into uranium-234, it gives off huge amounts of heat, which can then be converted to electrical energy by NASA’s radioisotope thermoelectric generators. Additionally, the heat also keeps scientific instruments warm in the cold void of space, allowing them to function properly.

Right now, though, NASA only has an estimated 35 kilograms of plutonium-238, of which only 17 kilograms is believed to be of a quality suitable for use in spacecrafts. And, in the statement, the DoE said that it hopes to scale up the operation to produce an average of 1.5 kilograms of plutonium in the coming years.

“As we seek to expand our knowledge of the universe, the Department of Energy will help ensure that our spacecraft have the power supply necessary to go farther than ever before,” Franklin Orr, under secretary for science and energy at the DoE, said. “We’re proud to work with NASA in this endeavor, and we look forward to our continued partnership.”


  • About News

    Web articles – via partners/network co-ordinators. This website and its contents are the exclusive property of ANGA Media Corporation . We appreciate your feedback and respond to every request. Please fill in the form or send us email to: [email protected]

    Check Also

    China: Organic molecule remnants found in dinosaur fossils

    China: Organic molecule remnants found in dinosaur fossils

    Organic molecule remnants found in nuclei of 125-million-year-old dinosaur cells. A team of scientists from …

    Leave a Reply