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 [businessinsider.com]— among them New Horizons (now beyond Pluto [businessinsider.com]), the Voyagers (now in interstellar space [businessinsider.com]), and Cassini (now part of Saturn [businessinsider.com]).
[...] 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 [ornl.gov] 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 [soylentnews.org]
NASA Unlikely to Have Enough Plutonium-238 for Missions by the Mid-2020s [soylentnews.org]