Scientists Produce Golf Ball-Sized Plutonium-238 to Fuel NASA Mars Rovers
The Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) on Tuesday announced that it has successfully produced Plutonium-238, the isotope which American space agency NASA was running out to fuel its Mars rovers.
The Department of Energy (DOE) said that it is for the first time that scientists have produced any Pu-238 since its Savannah River Plant is South Carolina ceased production in the late 1980s.
The ORNL has been working on this project since past few years using the finding provided by NASA via the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy.
The laboratory for their experiments used the High Flux Isotope Reactor for production of the plutonium isotope and then processed and purified the radioactive material in a series of shielded hot cells.
As per experts, the Pu-238 is majorly used in space power systems known as radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). This radioactive material produces heat when its starts decaying. The heat produced by it is then converted into electricity for vital tasks on spacecrafts, they said.
ORNL said in a statement that they now have a complete infrastructure that can provide steady and growing supply of Plutonium-238 for future space missions. The lab expects to produce 300 to 400 grams of Pu-238 per year and eventually ramp up annual production to about 1.5 kilograms.
According to NASA, the next space mission with plans for using an RTG is the Mars 2020 Rover, which is tentatively scheduled for launch in July 2020.
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