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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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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.

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