DOE Produces Plutonium-238 Fuel for Deep Space Missions

Researchers' production of 50 grams of plutonium-238 "marks the first demonstration in the United States since the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina ceased production in the late 1980s," DOE's announcement stated.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently announced that the first U.S. production in nearly 30 years of a specialized fuel to power future deep space missions has been completed by researchers at its Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Their production of 50 grams of plutonium-238 (about the mass of a golf ball, according to DOE), "marks the first demonstration in the United States since the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina ceased production in the late 1980s," its announcement stated.

This type of fuel has powered spacecraft and systems -- 27 past space missions in all -- that have explored our solar system and beyond it, including the Curiosity Mars Rover and the New Horizons spacecraft sailing past Pluto.

"This significant achievement by our teammates at DOE signals a new renaissance in the exploration of our solar system," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. "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."

The fuel production stemmed from a project funded by NASA and built on many years of research and testing. "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. "We're proud to work with NASA in this endeavor, and we look forward to our continued partnership."

The currently available radioisotope power system, also supplied to NASA by DOE, is called the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG). It can provide about 110 watts of electrical power to a spacecraft and its science instruments at the beginning of a mission. The next NASA mission planning to use an MMRTG is the Mars 2020 rover; fabrication of the fuel pellets for it is under way. Meanwhile, DOE researchers will analyze the sample for chemical purity and plutonium-238 content to determine whether adjustments need to be made before scaling up the production process.

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