The United States has increased the production of plutonium, which was resumed more than a decade ago, with the aim of using NASA’s planned missions with radioisotope energy systems.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory received for this purpose half a kilogram of plutonium oxide sent from the Oak Ridge facilities, both of the Department of Energy (DOE), an important milestone towards achieving the common goal of production constant rate of 1.5 kilos per year in 2026.
Radioisotope power systems, or RPS, are capable of exploring some of the deepest, darkest and most distant destinations in the solar system and beyond. RPSs use the natural decay of the radioisotope plutonium-238 to provide heat to a spacecraft in the form of a lightweight radioisotope heater unit (LWRHU), or heat and electricity in the form of a system such as a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG).
The DOE is making plutonium oxide the heat source needed to power the RPS for missions like NASA’s Mars 2020. The first spacecraft to benefit from this restart, the Perseverance rover, is carrying some of the new plutonium that done by the DOE. The MMRTG continuously supplies the car-like rover with heat and about 110 watts of electricity, enabling it to explore the Martian surface and collect soil samples for possible recovery.
“NASA’s Radioisotope Energy Systems Program works with the Department of Energy to enable missions to operate in some of the harshest environments in our solar system and interstellar space,” said Carl Sandifer, manager, of a statement of the RPS program at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.
For more than sixty years, the United States has used radioisotope-based electrical power systems and heating units in space. Three dozen missions have explored space for decades using the reliable power and heat provided by the RPS.