DOE Produces Plutonium-238 For Future Mars Space Missions

Posted: Dec 24 2015, 1:38am CST | by , Updated: Dec 24 2015, 11:48am CST, in News | Latest Science News

DOE Produces Plutonium-238 for Future Mars Space Missions
  • Department of Energy produces Plutonium-238 in America after 30 years for NASA's future Mars space mission!

The golf-ball sized Plotinum-238 chunk was formed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced they have successfully created Plutonum-238. A golf ball sized chunk of the Plutonium-238 was created.

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory produced the radioactive substance. The Plutonium-238 was created since NASA was running out of the isotope. The Oak Ridge scientists reportedly produced about 50 grams of Pu-238.

Plutonium-238 is used to fuel the Mars rovers and power its missions to outer solar system. Pu-238 has been created in the US after a long break of 30 years.

For the first time since the 1980’s Plutonium was created on American soil. The last Pu-238 plant was the DOE’s Savannah River Plant in South Carolina. The plant ceased PU-238 production in the late 1980s.

NASA only has Plutonium 238 left for a single planned mission to Mars. The mission is scheduled to take place in 2020. Another proposed visit by NASA is to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

If the visit to Europa is undertaken it would have tied up all the fuel NASA possesses until 2024. The isotope Pu-238 is used as a fuel in the RPS (Radio-istope Power Systems).

According to the Nuclear Power Assessment Study, the supply of Pu-238 for RPS is both expensive and scarce. The stewardship remains a central challenge for NASA and DOE.

"Once we automate and scale up the process, the nation will have a long-range capability to produce radioisotope power systems such as those used by NASA for deep space exploration," said Bob Wham, who leads the project for the lab's Nuclear Security and Isotope Technology Division.

NASA is dependent on the Department of Energy for the plutonium dioxide pellets. With enough pellets the NASA spacecraft can keep on running for decades. Last year Science News hinted DOE only has 24 pellets left on hand.

The same source also hinted DOE has begun plans of producing more in 2015. The pellets are being created specifically to aid the Mars mission in 2020. The Mars mission needs at least 32 pellets and then a few for security.

The RPS has been called a key tool to power the next generation of planetary orbiters. NASA and DOE reportedly have a contract to produce 1.5 Kg of plutonium dioxide per year.

The quantity is just enough to supply one or two, deep space missions per decade. Bob Wham is a head at Oak Ridge’s Nuclear Security and Isotope Technology Division.

According to Wham they are aiming to automate and scale up the Pu-238 production process. Then US will have a long-range capability to produce radioisotope power systems. The system would be ideal for use by NASA for deep space exploration.

"With this initial production of plutonium-238 oxide, we have demonstrated that our process works and we are ready to move on to the next phase of the mission," Wham said in a press release.

The Pu-238 power probes where solar radiation is too weak for solar power and too long for battery. The Pu-238 also kept the NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover from freezing by producing heat. There is no possibility of fission, instead enormous amounts of heat is converted to electricity.

The conversion occurs in a radio-isotopic thermal generator (RTG). The natural decay of plutonium-238 produced up to 475º F in the New Horizons probe. The same tech is used to power cardiac pacemakers.

All of NASA’s nuclear power needs have been summarized in the ‘Nuclear Power Assessment Study’. The classified study was published earlier in June 2015.

The Idaho National Laboratory also released how they assembled the New Horizons power system. The details of the document reveal the Pu-238 was received from LA in classified shipping containers.

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