NASA, DOE Produce Plutonium for First Time in 25 Years
March 14, 2013 1:05 PM
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
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.
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