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The U.S. is back in the plutonium-making game for space probes

The United States has produced its own plutonium for the first time in 25 years with the intention of using it for spacecraft.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) ad NASA together have developed plutonium-238, which is a non-weapons grade that will be used to power space probes.

It was created by encapsulating neptunium and putting it into a reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. After this radioactive starter material was in the reactor for a month, the DOE generated plutonium.

The new plutonium will then be mixed with NASA's old plutonium, which is decaying and still in storage. The old plutonium is more than 20 years old, but when one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of new plutonium is mixed with two kilograms of the old plutonium, it revives both units of the old plutonium to the energy density required.

“This is a major step forward,” said Jim Green, chief of NASA's planetary science division. “We’re expecting reports from (the DOE) later this year on a complete schedule that would then put plutonium on track to be generated at about 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) a year, so it’s going quite well."

The plutonium will be used for mission spacecraft and power systems like the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator (ASRG), which is expected to produce four times more electrical power per kilogram of plutonium-238 than previous systems.

The U.S. produced its own plutonium-238 up until the late 1980s. However, DOE's reactors at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina were shut down for safety reasons. Since then, the U.S. has bought plutonium from Russia, but that supply ran short in 2010.

Some past NASA spacecraft that use nuclear power include the twin Voyager probes and the Mars Curiosity rover. The Voyager 1 recently entered the magnetic highway -- which is the last step to interstellar space -- and Curiosity recently collected rock samples on Mars that indicate an environment once suited for life.

Source: Discovery News

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I am glad
By Ammohunt on 3/14/2013 1:37:24 PM , Rating: 5
Good for them sticking to what works in regards to properly powering deep space probes/vehicles. With the proper power source no part of our solar system is unexplored.

RE: I am glad
By djc208 on 3/14/2013 4:57:39 PM , Rating: 2
But think of all the tax credits they could get by using solar panels and wind turbines! ;)

RE: I am glad
By Azethoth on 3/14/13, Rating: -1
RE: I am glad
By Etsp on 3/14/2013 10:58:14 PM , Rating: 4
The "winking" smily: ;) is often used to denote sarcasm.

RE: I am glad
By JKflipflop98 on 3/15/2013 2:29:27 AM , Rating: 4
Stupid is as stupid does, I guess.

RE: I am glad
By FaaR on 3/15/2013 5:41:01 AM , Rating: 2
While nuclear power is the only currently viable option for deep-space missions, it's worth pointing out that most, if not all prior Mars probes have actually used solar panels, including roving vehicles. Presumably, solar panels would be too heavy, unwieldy or possibly mechanically fragile for a vehicle of Curiosity's size and power requirements. Hence the radio-isotope electric generator it carries.

RE: I am glad
By Souka on 3/15/2013 6:52:18 PM , Rating: 2
big issue with solar on mars....
dust...lots of dust.
dust storms...
clouds (gas) blocking sun

with radio-isotope the power is predictable, reliable, and always available.

fragile is a factor... but not what caused issues with the other rovers.

RE: I am glad
By Ringold on 3/15/2013 3:24:45 AM , Rating: 3
Yes! It's been done quietly up to this point, no doubt because he's well aware the hard-left greens make no space travel/science exception for their blind hatred of nuclear power. A rare good, logical decision from this White House.

Though Obama better be careful. In about a week, he'll get a sternly worded telegram from Jimmy Carter.

Also, the hard environmental left has, with the exception of that single pipeline, given Obama a free pass, and simply fumed in anger in relative silence. Every time he pokes them in the eye like this, though, he gets a little closer to having a revolt on his left flank. Gotta be careful, though I fully endorse making them angry.

By corduroygt on 3/14/2013 3:36:35 PM , Rating: 3
I thought we'd have Mr. Fusion in 2 years which would free us from plutonium dependence for time travel...

RE: Unimpressed
By FaaR on 3/15/2013 5:43:34 AM , Rating: 2
Ah yes. Flying DeLoreans powered by mushy banana peels, egg shells and stale beer... That'd really be something to behold.

RE: Unimpressed
By nafhan on 3/15/2013 11:14:32 AM , Rating: 2
Hoverboards and a pizza rehydrator would also be acceptable.

Seriously, though, technology is awesome. 3D printing would blow someone from the 80's mind!

RE: Unimpressed
By drlumen on 3/15/2013 12:53:28 PM , Rating: 2
Aside from the CPU power that has come a long way since the 70's and 80's, I'm still amazed at how far display technology has come since the 80's. From green and gold monochrome displays to the HD displays with 32bit (or more) color palettes. Not to mention 4K and higher resolutions making their appearance now. Absolutely incredible!

RE: Unimpressed
By wavetrex on 3/16/2013 3:30:41 PM , Rating: 2
I'm even more impressed by storage capacity.

My first disk-based storage device had 360KBytes capacity on a 5.25 floppy
My current hard-drive has 4TB.

That's 10.8 million times more.

Electronic storage evolved quite similar.

My first (non-pc) computer had 4KB of EEPROM (basically, "flash") which hosted a rudimentary "bios". My SSD has 256GB (and it's not the biggest possible).

That's 67 million times more !

You SHOULD be impressed.

RE: Unimpressed
By delphinus100 on 3/16/2013 9:39:34 PM , Rating: 2
I often say to people that it's the 21st Century, and no, we don't have flying cars...but the big, non-CRT televisions (which I personally had anticipated in some form for decades) did arrive pretty much on schedule.

RE: Unimpressed
By boobo on 3/17/2013 9:20:10 PM , Rating: 2
I'm someone from the 80s and yes, my mind is blown!

RE: Unimpressed
By Techslave on 3/18/2013 11:15:54 AM , Rating: 2
3D printers have been around since the 60's. They were called "Automatic coffee makers" :D

RE: Unimpressed
By havoti97 on 3/19/2013 1:12:28 AM , Rating: 2
I was also disappointed. By now we should already have Fusion lvl 2 researched and/or working on Fusion lvl 3.

Terrible article
By Captain Orgazmo on 3/17/2013 8:47:46 PM , Rating: 2
I never have to read the byline to know whether an article was written by Ms. Kaiser. If it reads like MS Word auto-summarized nonsense, with incomprehensible syntax and context, then it's most definitely a Tiffany Kaiser farticle.

"If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion." -- Scientology founder L. Ron. Hubbard

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