US scientists claim they have tasted success in producing plutonium-238 in powdered form. It is the first time in last three decades when the US has achieved the milestone that could one day power NASA’s deep-space missions, such as Mars.
Scientists from the United States have produced a material that could power the country’s space mission. About 50 grams powder of plutonium-238 that the scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have produced is the first such milestone in about 30 years in the US.
Plutonium-238, also known as Pu-238, releases heat when it breaks down into uranium-234. It is the time when the powder can be used to power something. Scientists predict the released during the decay could power about 30 space missions.
South Carolina’s Savannah River Plant was producing Plutonium-238 during the time of the Cold War. Bob Wham, lead researcher from the Nuclear Security and Isotope Technology Division at the Department of Energy's ORNL, said the plant was closed in 1988 and since then, the country is not producing the new material.
Since 1988, the US is getting the Pu-238 from Russia for its space missions. However, Russia has announced shut down of its isotope-producing isotope. Two years ago, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) started funding to the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy to produce the material.
Experts believe Pu-238 is capable of powering sources for space reasons. It has half-life of about 88 years, which makes it an ideal candidate for the mission. “In addition, it's stable at high temperatures, can generate substantial heat in small amounts and emits relatively low levels of radiation that is easily shielded, so mission-critical instruments and equipment are not affected”, said Wham.