First Powder Of Plutonium-238 Made In The US In 30-Years Is Complete

Scientists in the US have created the first powder of plutonium-238 made in the States in nearly 30 years. The scientists say that this is a milestone that sets the US on a path towards being able to power NASA deep-space exploration missions. Plutonium-238 also known as Pu-238 is a radioactive element that decays breaking down into Uranium-234 and releases heat as it breaks down.

The heat produced in that process can be used as a power source and 30 different space missions including the Voyager spacecraft of the 1970s relied on the oxide from of plutonium. During the Cold War of the '80s Pu-238 was made in the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina, but those reactors were shut down in 1988.

Since those reactors were closed, the US had no way to make Pu-238. After those reactors were shutdown Russia supplied the material for space missions, but Russia stopped making Pu-238 two years ago. Pu-238 is stable at high temperatures, generates substantial heat in small amounts, and emits low levels of radiation that are easily shielded to prevent any critical instruments and equipment from being affected.

The scientists created 50 grams of Pu-238, enough to characterize the substance. The material was made using the infrastructure at the Department of Energy and scientists are adapting the process to function in DOE reactors that are smaller than the ones used at Savannah River. The next NASA mission that will use Pu-238 for power is the Mars 2020 rover set for July 2020 launch.

SOURCE: LiveScience