NASA’s New Power Play: Plutonium-238 for Distant Space Journeys

by Hiroshi Tanaka
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Plutonium-238

NASA’s New Strategy: Plutonium-238 for Distant Space Voyages

Radioisotope power systems (RPS), pivotal for venturing into the depths of space, harness the decay of plutonium-238 to generate power. The recent delivery of 0.5 kilograms of plutonium-238 heat source material from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory to the Los Alamos National Laboratory signifies a significant stride in propelling NASA’s forthcoming missions.

The DOE’s dispatch of 0.5 kilograms of plutonium-238 to the Los Alamos National Laboratory signifies a landmark achievement in the production of fuel for NASA’s radioisotope power systems, which are indispensable for deep space exploration. This advancement aligns with the objective of producing 1.5 kilograms annually by 2026 and lends crucial support to missions like Mars 2020, underscoring the enduring and vital collaboration between NASA and the DOE.

The recent transfer of plutonium-238 heat source material from the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to the Los Alamos National Laboratory represents a pivotal step towards supplying NASA’s planned missions with radioisotope power systems.

This delivery of 0.5 kilograms, equivalent to slightly over 1 pound, of new plutonium oxide heat source material constitutes the most substantial consignment since the domestic resurgence of plutonium-238 production over a decade ago. It signifies a momentous milestone on the path to achieving the targeted annual production rate of 1.5 kilograms by 2026.

Radioisotope power systems, known as RPS, facilitate exploration of the most remote and enigmatic destinations within the solar system and beyond. RPS rely on the natural decay of the radioisotope plutonium-238 to furnish spacecraft with heat, either through a Light Weight Radioisotope Heater Unit (LWRHU) or both heat and electricity via a system like the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG).

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover, as of March 17, 2022, on the 381st Martian day, or sol, of its mission, gazes upon the tracks left by its wheels. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The DOE has succeeded in producing the essential plutonium oxide heat source material required to power RPS for missions such as NASA’s Mars 2020. The Perseverance rover, the inaugural spacecraft to benefit from this rekindled effort, carries a portion of the newly generated plutonium from the DOE. An MMRTG continuously supplies the rover, roughly the size of a car, with heat and approximately 110 watts of electricity, enabling the exploration of the Martian surface and the collection of potential soil samples.

“NASA’s Radioisotope Power Systems Program collaborates closely with the Department of Energy to enable missions to function in some of the most extreme environments within our solar system and the vast expanse of interstellar space,” affirmed Carl Sandifer, RPS program manager at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

For over six decades, the United States has harnessed radioisotope-based electrical power systems and heater units in space. A multitude of missions have delved into the cosmos, relying on the dependable supply of electricity and heat furnished by RPS.

NASA and the DOE persist in their enduring partnership, safeguarding the nation’s ability to support future missions reliant on radioisotopes for decades to come.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Plutonium-238

What is the significance of plutonium-238 in space exploration?

Plutonium-238 plays a crucial role in space exploration by serving as a power source for radioisotope power systems (RPS). These RPS systems utilize the natural decay of plutonium-238 to generate heat and electricity, enabling spacecraft to function in remote and challenging environments.

Why is the recent shipment of plutonium-238 important?

The recent shipment of 0.5 kilograms of plutonium-238 from the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to the Los Alamos National Laboratory is significant because it marks a milestone in the production of fuel for NASA’s RPS systems. This progress supports NASA’s future missions, such as Mars 2020, and reinforces the vital partnership between NASA and the DOE.

What is the goal for plutonium-238 production by 2026?

The goal is to produce 1.5 kilograms of plutonium-238 annually by 2026. This target is essential to ensure a steady supply of fuel for RPS systems, which are indispensable for deep space exploration.

How do RPS systems work, and what are their applications?

RPS systems use the natural decay of plutonium-238 to provide heat and electricity to spacecraft. They come in various forms, such as Light Weight Radioisotope Heater Units (LWRHU) for heat and Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (MMRTG) for both heat and electricity. These systems enable missions to explore distant and challenging destinations within the solar system and beyond.

Which missions have benefited from RPS systems?

Over sixty years, more than three dozen missions have relied on RPS systems for their electrical power and heat requirements. Notable examples include NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, where the Perseverance rover is powered by an MMRTG, and various interstellar missions that operate in extreme environments.

What is the long-term partnership between NASA and the DOE in this context?

NASA and the DOE have a longstanding partnership to ensure the availability of radioisotope fuels for future missions. This collaboration is vital to support space exploration missions that rely on RPS systems for decades to come.

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