The Department of Energy announced that 50 grams of Plutonium-238 (or “Pu-238”) had been made by researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. It may not seem like much, but the substance hasn’t been made in the United States for nearly 30 years even though its the most prominent fuel used for deep-space exploration. In fact, this is the first time it has been made in the country since the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina cut its production in the late 80’s.
Pu-238 powers spacecrafts with the heat produced through radioactive decay, a method that’s been essential to previous missions like the Viking missions on Mars, the Voyager spacecraft, and the recent Curiosity Mars Rover and New Horizons space probe. NASA currently has 35 kilograms – or 77 pounds – of the substance, which is enough to fuel two or three missions into the mid 2020’s. However, with the possibility of a new supply in the near future, that means more potential for further space exploration.
“As we seek to expand our knowledge of the universe, the Department of Energy will help ensure that our spacecraft have the power supply necessary to go farther than ever before,” said Franklin Orr, Under Secretary for Science and Energy at DOE, in the government news release. “We’re proud to work with NASA in this endeavor, and we look forward to our continued partnership.”
The agency has been funding the production of Pu-238 for roughly two years now, putting around $15 million into DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy’s efforts each year. It’s been quite a gradual process, and these 50 grams in no way confirm the department’s ability to produce the substance on a large scale without losing purity or other significant characteristics. Though it might have been a while since it was last made, this comeback has been nothing more than a test. More adjustments are needed before NASA has a reliable supply.
“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,” Bob Wham, head of the project for the ORNL’s Nuclear Security and Isotope Technology Division, said in an ORNL press release.
“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.”
However, it still paints a picture of a brighter future where something as fundamentally informative as space exploration can thrive and grow with fewer obstacles.
“This significant achievement by our teammates at DOE signals a new renaissance in the exploration of our solar system,” expressed associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, John Grunsfeld, in a DOE 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.”