After a 30-year pause, the Department of Energy will provide Plutonium-238 for deep space missions. The 50 grams that have been currently produced will be used in the 2020 mission that NASA is currently planning.
The United States used to produce plutonium-238 at the Sanvannah River Plant in South Carolina. Production work ceases at the end of 1980s, but both the Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA want to start re-using radioisotope power systems because they are the only ones that can support space missions beyond our solar systems.
NASA has started working on this project two years ago, but the actual research on the possible applications of radioisotope power began many decades ago. The new system presupposes that radioisotope power is transformed into heat by turning plutonium-238 into electricity.
The efficiency of radioisotope power systems was proven many times before. NASA used the same electricity to fuel the Viking mission on Mars, the Voyager travels on space, as well as the recent missions of the Curiosity Rover on Mars.
The Department of Energy is currently supplying the energy for the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, also known as the MMRTG. This component is an electrical battery that can provide up to 110 watts for a spacecraft, as well as the necessary heat to keep space ships warm during deep space missions.
DOE has produced just 50 grams of plutonium-238 for the moment, but the administration plans to increase production in the future. Their future goal is to create 300 or 400 grams of plutonium in 2016. The following years could see the production of 1.5 kilograms of plutonium, DOE has further informed.
NASA and DOE have signed this agreement to start producing plutonium-238 because the existing amount of metallic compound was not enough to supply NASA’s mission on Mars in 2020. The two institutions have informed that there is now a 35-kilogram quantity of plutonium available for deep space missions, but only half of it can be used for NASA’s objectives because the other half is too outdated to meet space mission requirements.
DOE and NASA are extremely pleased that they have managed to produce even a small amount of plutonium-238. They have described their scientific breakthrough as the renaissance of space exploration due to the numerous benefits that the invention can have.
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