U.S. is back in the plutonium-238 business

Image: Plutonium production
By producing 50 grams of plutonium-238, Oak Ridge researchers have demonstrated the ability to resume providing an energy source for deep-space missions. (Credit: ORNL)

After a 27-year gap, the U.S. Department of Energy has resumed producing plutonium-238, the radioactive fuel that powers NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars and the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond.

The material will be used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs, for future space missions. The RTGs generate electricity as well as heat – as shown in “The Martian,” a movie in which an RTG is repurposed to keep a marooned astronaut warm.

They’re particularly suited for missions to the outer planets, where solar-powered probes face greater challenges. Future plutonium-powered missions may include flights to study the mysterious ice-covered moons of Jupiter (such as Europa) or Saturn (such as Enceladus).

“This significant achievement by our teammates at DOE signals a new renaissance in the exploration of our solar system,” John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said today in a news release. “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.”

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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