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posted by Fnord666 on Monday January 14 2019, @02:06PM   Printer-friendly [Skip to comment(s)]
from the glowing-idea dept.

NASA's deep-space nuclear-power crisis may soon end, thanks to a clever new robot in Tennessee

The US government says a new robot is poised to help it create a reliable, long-term supply chain of plutonium-238 (Pu-238): a radioactive material NASA requires to explore deep space.

NASA uses Pu-238 to power its most epic space missions— among them New Horizons (now beyond Pluto), the Voyagers (now in interstellar space), and Cassini (now part of Saturn).

[...] NASA tried to address the shrinking of its supply in the 1990s, but the agency and its partners didn't secure funding to create a new pipeline for Pu-238 until 2012. That work, which gets about $20 million in funding per year, is finally starting to move from the research phase toward full-scale production. By 2025, the Department of Energy hopes to meet the NASA-mandated need of 3.3 pounds (1,500 grams) per year.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is located in Tennessee and leading the work, says it recently proved there is a way to produce eight times as much Pu-238 as it made just a couple of years ago, thanks to a new automated robot. [...] This week, the lab said in a press release that it's ready to push annual production to more than 14 ounces (400 grams) per year, an eight-fold increase.

Cassini carried 33 kilograms of plutonium. New Horizons had 9,750 grams (lower than the 10,900 grams, 1/3 of the Cassini amount, called for in the original design).

It's time to send a probe to Uranus and Neptune already.

Previously: US Resumes Making Pu-238 after Decades Long Hiatus
NASA Unlikely to Have Enough Plutonium-238 for Missions by the Mid-2020s


Original Submission

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US Resumes Making Pu-238 after Decades Long Hiatus 8 comments

The US Department of Energy announced that 50 grams of Plutonium-238 had been made by researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. This is the first time the substance has been made in the country since the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina stopped making it in the late 1980s.

"Right now, NASA only has access to 35 kilograms, about 77 pounds, of Pu-238 to power space exploration missions. That's just enough to last into the middle 2020s, powering just two or three proposed missions."

"Two years ago, NASA began funding efforts to make Pu-238 again in ernest. The agency has put about $15 million each year toward the DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy's efforts." The next step is to automate and scale up the process.

I didn't know we had lost the capability to produce it and am glad we are starting up again. So how much Pu-238 could we make for the cost of one F-35?

Source:
http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2015/1223/Department-of-Energy-begins-making-plutonium-destined-for-deep-space


Original Submission

NASA Unlikely to Have Enough Plutonium-238 for Missions by the Mid-2020s 41 comments

A Government Accountability Office report has found that the U.S. is unlikely to produce enough Plutonium-238 for NASA missions about a decade from now. The isotope has been used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) on missions such as Voyager, Cassini, and the Mars Science Laboratory:

Another GAO report notes: "[...], DOE currently maintains about 35 kilograms (kg) [77 pounds] of Pu-238 isotope designated for NASA missions, about half of which meets power specifications for spaceflight. However, given NASA's current plans for solar system exploration, this supply could be exhausted within the next decade."

[...] To address the plutonium problem, in 2011 NASA provided funding to the Department of Energy (DOE) to restart domestic production of the substance. The program is called the Pu-238 Supply Project. So far, the Project has produced ∼3.5 ounces (100 grams) of Pu-238. DOE identified an interim goal of producing 10 to 17.5 ounces (300 to 500 grams) of new Pu-238 per year by 2019. The goal is to produce 1.5 kilograms of new Pu-238 per year—considered full production—by 2023, at the earliest.

GAO is questioning the Supply Project's ability to meet its goal of producing 1.5 kilograms of new Pu-238 per year by 2026. For one thing, the oversight agency's interviews with DOE officials revealed that the agency hasn't perfected the chemical processing required to extract new Pu-238 from irradiated targets to meet production goals.

Only one DOE reactor is currently qualified to make Pu-238:

NASA's plutonium will be produced at two of these reactors, but only one of them is currently qualified to make Pu-238. GAO reported that initial samples of the new Pu-238 did not meet spaceflight specifications because of impurities. However, according to DOE, the samples can be blended and used with existing Pu-238.


Original Submission

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  • (Score: 4, Informative) by stretch611 on Monday January 14 2019, @02:52PM (5 children)

    by stretch611 (6199) Subscriber Badge on Monday January 14 2019, @02:52PM (#786442)

    It's time to send a probe to Uranus...

    Farnsworth: I'm sorry, Fry, but astronomers renamed Uranus in 2620 [youtube.com] to end that stupid joke once and for all..
    Fry: Oh. What's it called now?
    Farnsworth: Urectum [theinfosphere.org].

    --
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    • (Score: 2) by DannyB on Monday January 14 2019, @07:05PM (4 children)

      by DannyB (5839) Subscriber Badge on Monday January 14 2019, @07:05PM (#786569) Journal

      I think the moon Miranda [wikipedia.org] might be a good candidate to visit as part of any mission to Uranus.

      Please end that stupid joke once and for all. It's pronounced: URINE-us, with the emphasis on the first pair of syllables.

      --
      You can not have fun on the weak days but you can on the weakened.
      • (Score: 2) by takyon on Monday January 14 2019, @07:11PM

        by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Monday January 14 2019, @07:11PM (#786574) Journal

        All of Uranus's five largest moons are great targets. Some of them could have underground liquid oceans. Neptune only has one large moon, Triton, although that is an interesting target that could have an underground ocean and is considered to be an example of a captured Kuiper belt object. Triton is also larger than Pluto and Eris.

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      • (Score: 3, Interesting) by Azuma Hazuki on Tuesday January 15 2019, @06:06AM (2 children)

        by Azuma Hazuki (5086) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday January 15 2019, @06:06AM (#786812) Journal

        Technically "OO-ran-ous" if we're going back to the proper Greek (Ouranos/the heavens). Which is weird, given all the other names are Roman. You'd think it'd be "Caelestus" or something.

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        • (Score: 2) by DannyB on Tuesday January 15 2019, @02:49PM

          by DannyB (5839) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday January 15 2019, @02:49PM (#786905) Journal

          That is informative. I'm going by how I have heard astronomers pronounce it on cable tv documentary programs back when I suffered from cable tv.

          --
          You can not have fun on the weak days but you can on the weakened.
        • (Score: 1, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 15 2019, @03:04PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 15 2019, @03:04PM (#786912)

          Cælus [wikipedia.org] was the name of the Roman sky god that they associated with Uranus/Ouranos in the same way they associated Aphrodite with Venus, Ares with Mars, Zeus with Jupiter, and so on.

  • (Score: 2) by All Your Lawn Are Belong To Us on Monday January 14 2019, @03:29PM

    by All Your Lawn Are Belong To Us (6553) on Monday January 14 2019, @03:29PM (#786453) Journal

    ... The robot that will do all this wasn't named Bender, was it? The picture in TFA looks suspiciously like his arm. And I wonder if he's part Proactinium anyway....

    --
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  • (Score: 2) by Farmer Tim on Monday January 14 2019, @03:52PM (2 children)

    by Farmer Tim (6490) on Monday January 14 2019, @03:52PM (#786461)
    So much better than the manually operated type...
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    Came for the news, stayed for the soap opera.
  • (Score: 1) by redneckmother on Monday January 14 2019, @04:11PM (7 children)

    by redneckmother (3597) on Monday January 14 2019, @04:11PM (#786467)

    So, let's increase the manufacture of the (probably) most poisonous substance known to humanity, and send it willy-nilly into the void... Great idea!

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    Mas cerveza por favor.
    • (Score: 3, Touché) by PartTimeZombie on Monday January 14 2019, @07:53PM (6 children)

      by PartTimeZombie (4827) on Monday January 14 2019, @07:53PM (#786595)

      I am unsure what damage you think a few kilos of plutonium might do in space?

      • (Score: 4, Funny) by takyon on Monday January 14 2019, @08:17PM

        by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Monday January 14 2019, @08:17PM (#786603) Journal

        Marooned astronauts could take off their helmets and breathe in the plutonium dust.

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      • (Score: 1, Disagree) by redneckmother on Tuesday January 15 2019, @02:41AM (4 children)

        by redneckmother (3597) on Tuesday January 15 2019, @02:41AM (#786753)

        Assuming (ass u me ing) it stays there, perhaps contaminating something (or someplace) we might want to visit in the future? Contaminating (or perhaps, destroying) some life form of which we're unaware? Falling back to our planet?

        Yeah, it's kinda doubtful, but why take the chance? We should consider the consequences... "normal accidents"?

        One gram of it, aerosolized, is enough to (eventually) kill every human on Earth. Bad stuph.

        --
        Mas cerveza por favor.
        • (Score: 2) by PartTimeZombie on Tuesday January 15 2019, @02:53AM (3 children)

          by PartTimeZombie (4827) on Tuesday January 15 2019, @02:53AM (#786758)

          One gram of it, aerosolized, is enough to (eventually) kill every human on Earth. Bad stuph.

          I don't think that's true. Can you provide a source?

          You might also be surprised to know that as soon as you leave the protection of Earth's magnetic field, any man-made radiation is absolutely swamped by the radiation from the Sun.

          A little plutonium would not even be noticed, and as far a contamination goes, I don't think you realise quite how big space is.

          • (Score: 1) by redneckmother on Tuesday January 15 2019, @07:12AM (2 children)

            by redneckmother (3597) on Tuesday January 15 2019, @07:12AM (#786826)

            Thanks for doubting that assertion. On reflection, the "one gram" is probably from my faltering memory. I should think that it would take at least 454 grams (one pound) to achieve that effect. I regret that I'm unable to locate the book from which I read the statistic... my library is packed away, pending a move.

            Thank you for reminding me to avoid "talking out of my ass" :-).

            Nonetheless, the alpha emitter nature of plutonium isotopes make them extremely hazardous to life forms as we know them, and some have extraordinarily long lifetimes. I prefer that we avoid producing them and leaving them about "for the kids to find".

            --
            Mas cerveza por favor.
            • (Score: 3, Informative) by takyon on Tuesday January 15 2019, @11:38AM

              by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Tuesday January 15 2019, @11:38AM (#786856) Journal

              Your new figure is just as false as the 1 gram assertion.

              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassini%E2%80%93Huygens#Plutonium_power_source [wikipedia.org]

              Had there been any malfunction causing the probe to collide with the Earth, NASA's complete environmental impact study estimated that, in the worst case (with an acute angle of entry in which Cassini would gradually burn up), a significant fraction of the 33 kg of plutonium-238 inside the RTGs would have been dispersed into the Earth's atmosphere so that up to five billion people (i.e. almost the entire terrestrial population) could have been exposed, causing up to an estimated 5,000 additional cancer deaths over the subsequent decades (0.0005 per cent, i.e. a fraction 0.000005, of a billion cancer deaths expected anyway from other causes; the product is incorrectly calculated elsewhere as 500,000 deaths). However, the chance of this happening were estimated to be less than one in one million.

              33 kg (73 lbs) spreads across the whole planet, and you get an utterly unnoticeable jump in cancer deaths. If a similar-sized RTG were to blow up in the 2030s, we could probably find a cure for most cancers before most of those people died.

              Maybe you were thinking of some other isotope? The one used in RTGs is plutonium-238.

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            • (Score: 2) by PartTimeZombie on Tuesday January 15 2019, @06:54PM

              by PartTimeZombie (4827) on Tuesday January 15 2019, @06:54PM (#786997)

              I prefer to keep things civil on Soylent, and don't tend to use phrases like "talking out of your ass".*

              I do think however that you ought to do a little more research about plutonium 238, as it is not nearly as toxic as you might think. You should avoid storing it under your bed in a cardboard box, but once it is sent into space there is no possible damage it might do.

              * It's spelled "arse" anyway.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 14 2019, @04:51PM (2 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 14 2019, @04:51PM (#786480)

    Kidding aside, what kind of MORON announces that more plutonium will be produced ?

    Stuff like this should be a very closely guarded secret for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention.

    • (Score: 2) by takyon on Monday January 14 2019, @07:07PM (1 child)

      by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Monday January 14 2019, @07:07PM (#786571) Journal

      It's not useful for making nuclear weapons. It's a byproduct of other nuclear processes. It's a very small amount too. It would not be worth it to attack a well-guarded facility and become the subject of an intense manhunt.

      If terrorists want to get nuclear material or nukes, they should attack targets in Pakistan.

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      • (Score: 3, Interesting) by MichaelDavidCrawford on Monday January 14 2019, @08:33PM

        by MichaelDavidCrawford (2339) Subscriber Badge <mdcrawford@gmail.com> on Monday January 14 2019, @08:33PM (#786620) Homepage Journal

        This is Pu-238; The Bomb uses Pu-239.

        I _think_ 238 has a far shorter half life than 239. In any case, a non-Bomb isotope the size of a golf ball will glow red hot.

        Plutonium facilitates a far-more credible threat than does Uranium, as it can be made in a small nuclear reactor than separated from the spent fuel by a chemical process. Uranium requires truly prodigious quantities of electricity to make it with a Calutron, a large Mass Spectrometer, or a whole bunch of $$$ Uranium Hexafluoride Gas Turbine Cascades.

        --
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  • (Score: 2) by Runaway1956 on Monday January 14 2019, @06:39PM

    by Runaway1956 (2926) Subscriber Badge on Monday January 14 2019, @06:39PM (#786546) Homepage Journal

    Isn't this where the Oak Ridge Boys come from? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4VAGGatiw0 [youtube.com]

    --
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  • (Score: 2) by MichaelDavidCrawford on Monday January 14 2019, @08:26PM

    by MichaelDavidCrawford (2339) Subscriber Badge <mdcrawford@gmail.com> on Monday January 14 2019, @08:26PM (#786614) Homepage Journal

    ... have in common?

    They're both on the way to Uranus to wipe out the Klingons.

    Rim-Shot!

    Thanks, folks you've been great. I'll be here all night - be sure to stuff some bills in my tip jar on your way out.

    --
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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 14 2019, @11:11PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 14 2019, @11:11PM (#786694)

    More likely a special surprise for our muzzie friends in Mecca.

  • (Score: 2) by DBCubix on Tuesday January 15 2019, @07:51PM

    by DBCubix (553) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday January 15 2019, @07:51PM (#787024)

    So if they pushed production to 0.4kg/year (an 8x increase), prior production before this technique was 0.05kg/year. New Horizons and Cassini required 42.75kg combined. This means the US started Pu-238 production 855 years ago. I somehow doubt that.

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