NASA is Open to More Spacecrafts Powered by Plutonium

Monday, 19 March 2018 - 7:31PM
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NASA
Monday, 19 March 2018 - 7:31PM
NASA is Open to More Spacecrafts Powered by Plutonium
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NASA
For their most important missions, NASA will sometimes create a power source from their very limited supply of plutonium-232, a rare and radioactive metal. But it's not a fuel source to be tossed around lightly, in any sense of the phrase.

Which makes it a surprise that NASA's Discovery program has lifted the ban on radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG), radioactive batteries powered by that type of plutonium. The Discovery program is focused on cheaper space missions that can reach space in $500 million or less, and until now, researchers had been banned from submitting proposals that require RTGs as power sources.

In short, if you want to suggest a plutonium-powered spacecraft to NASA, they're happy to hear it, so long as you have a very detailed plan for how that would work (and so long as you keep it under half a billion dollars).



NASA has been using RTGs since their inception, or close to it. It has to come out whenever they're planning a longterm space mission, and different missions like the Mars Curiosity rover and the Saturn Cassini probe were both fueled by nuclear power. But the Discovery program is often cheaper than similar programs like NASA's New Frontiers, and RTGs were thought to be too valuable for cheaper missions.

This is because a RTG is extremely powerful - as the plutonium naturally decays, it gives off heat which can be converted into energy. And when dealing with spacecrafts that will be completely cut off from any gas stations once launched into space, a reliable and long-lasting fuel source is often included when solar panels aren't sufficient on their own. 



The reason behind the announcement seems to be that NASA simply has more of the rare metal to spare - they recently succeeded in creating more of the substance, so they're willing to take more suggestions regarding its usage. The program often considers some interesting ideas, although things like the New Frontiers drone that could Saturn's moon Titan tend to be more intriguing. 

NASA is also re-considering sending a satellite out to Neptune, as that idea was once denied because the mission didn't seem like an adequate reason to pull from their plutonium source. You can do a lot with radioactivity.

It remains to be seen whether or not NASA will do anything, especially with the recent hits to their funding and uneasy shifts in power, but the possibilities are there.
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