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NASA Is Running Our Of The Most Precious Ingredient Needed For Future Space Missions
Plutonium supply for NASA missions faces long-term challenges (CCSS Level: Grade 11, Words: 333)
Oct 11, 2017 Science & Technology
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While NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) have restarted production of a plutonium isotope used to power some space missions, a new report warns of problems that could threaten its long-term supply.

The recent report by the Government Accountability Office, prepared for a committee hearing on the subject, said that while there is sufficient plutonium-238 (a radioisotope whose heat can be converted into electricity) in stockpiles now for missions planned through the mid-2020s, increases in the production of the isotope is limited by a number of technical issues.

The problem is that most plutonium-238 was made during the Cold War, and mission-ready material may run out within eight years, according to the above report. "The Department of Energy (DOE) is making progress towards producing new plutonium-238," said Shelby Oakley, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the GAO. "However DOE faces challenges in hiring and training the necessary workforce, perfecting and scaling up chemical processing, and ensuring the availability to reactors that must be addressed or its ability to meet NASA's need could be jeopardised. "

Apparently the DOE lacks a long-term plan with milestones to show progress towards its ultimate goal of producing 1.5 kilograms of plutonium-238 a year by 2025. The DOE has accepted recommendations regarding better communications with NASA on these issues.

NASA and DOE began an effort in 2011 to restart plutonium-238 production, a precious product that was last made in the U.S in the late 1980s. A trial production campaign in 2015 produced 100 grams of the isotope, said a spokesperson for nuclear infrastructure programs at DOE. A second batch will be completed later this fall.

Current supplies, plus new production, would be enough for planned space missions and beyond. "DOE will have sufficient material for fabrication of heat sources for expected planetary science missions through 2030," the spokesperson said. "In additional NASA and DOE have begun exploring options to increase production rates, if needed, to support any increased future demand. "

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