Thursday, September 19, 2013

Will NASA Run Out of Plutonium-238?

Here at NEI, we like to keep an ear to the ground when it comes to what's being discussed on Twitter and make sure to respond if/when folks direct reasonable questions our way.

Earlier this afternoon, Baltimore resident Dan Ewald posed the following question to us via Twitter:
"Y'all doing anything to help with the impending Plutonium-238 problem for @NASA?
Dan very helpfully included a link to a story from Wired describing the problem. To get an answer, I turned to Leslie Barbour of NEI:
We have long supported the DOE program for space exploration in appropriations, especially Cassini. The funding has always been provided by the Office of Nuclear Energy until this year when DOE and NASA agreed that space reactor funding be included in NASA budget. We can look at this again if needed.
For more information on how NASA spacecraft utilize radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) for the power they need, see our website.


jimwg said...

Might be a good(overdue) time to push work on mini-reactors for probes and manned spacecraft.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Engineer-Poet said...

The problem with mini-reactors is neutron and gamma radiation, which requires heavy shielding.  Alpha and beta emitters don't give you that problem.

At least beta emitters provide an alternative to Pu-238.  Perhaps RTGs can be re-designed to use Sr-90.