Scientists Are Creating Rare, Dangerous Plutonium-238 for the First Time Since the Cold War...for NASA

Monday, 14 January 2019 - 1:25PM
Technology
Space
NASA
Monday, 14 January 2019 - 1:25PM
Scientists Are Creating Rare, Dangerous Plutonium-238 for the First Time Since the Cold War...for NASA
< >
Pixabay
The Cold War was a breakthrough period for science, despite the looming threat of nuclear armageddon. In addition to projects like the 1977 Voyager missions (both of which have since passed out of our solar system), scientists were laying the plans for ambitious projects like the Stanford torus...as well as even more destructive nuclear warheads. At the heart of both the Voyager missions and those nukes, however, was a common element: plutonium-238.

According to Business Insider, plutonium-238 is one of the rarest and most valuable materials known to man, in part due to its usefulness in powering long-range spacecraft. It's also closely related to plutonium-239, which is an isotope used in nuclear weapons. What makes Pu-238 especially valuable is that it's entirely man-made—unlike some other radioactive isotopes, it requires careful preparation and a complex, dangerous refinement process to create. Though it saw mass production during the Cold War, no one's been making Pu-238 since then. That's a problem for NASA, which has been relying on its stockpile of the stuff to power missions as recently as the New Horizons probe.

Apart from dangerous radiation, Plutonium-238's decay produces a lot of heat, and does so for a long time—centuries, in fact. NASA has created devices called radioisotope power sources that harness that heat and use it to power probes, allowing them to operate for extended periods. NASA's been asking for more Pu-238 for over a decade, but renewed production was approved only recently. It's being handled by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which has had to come up with a new process to manufacture the material. Though they've only managed to produce a relatively small amount of Pu-238 (about 1.8 ounces) so far, they've reached a point where they could hypothetically create 11 pounds per year—three times what NASA is requesting.

It's cool to see something like Pu-238, which was born during an age of nuclear fear, being resurrected decades later to continue exploring the cosmos. Shine on, you crazy (and incredibly dangerous) isotope.
Science
Science News
Technology
Space
NASA
No