Future of deep space travel in jeopardy as NASA admits it's running out of one precious resource

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There's a problem with future space travel that NASA and other space agencies are currently struggling to get to grips with.

Not only is exploring the cosmos extremely expensive, it also requires a tremendous amount of energy.

While solar power will work for some missions, it's no use when it comes to sending spacecraft into deep space. Last week, NASA announced that Voyager 1, launched in 1977, crossed into interstellar space.

That means it's beyond the reach of the sun and is dependent on its own on-board energy supply.

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The Voyager 1 probe has travelled further into space than any other man-made object and relies on plutonium-238 for power

Voyager 1 along with other crafts like the now-defunct Cassini probe and the Curiosity rover exploring Mars rely on a radioactive isotope called plutonium-238.

It's an artificial element that we discovered as a byproduct of making nuclear weapons. And we're running out of it.

Back in the 1960s, NASA had a so-called SNAP (Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power) programme that developed, among other things, the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). This is, in effect, a small lump of decaying plutonium-238 that gives off heat and power as it breaks down and can be loaded into a spacecraft to power it for years.

But supplies of plutonium-238 are dwindling.

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Plutonium for the Trinity test and the atom bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan during World War II was produced at the reactor as part of the Manhattan Project

"We've got enough to last to the end of this decade. That's it," Steve Johnson, a nuclear chemist at Idaho National Laboratory, previously told WIRED .

The prospects for exploring space without it are dire. Solar power is no good beyond the heliosphere and chemical batteries don't last anywhere near long enough.

The only hope is for countries like the US to produce more of the resource. Something that's being done inside a nuclear reactor in Tennessee albeit in very small amounts.

NASA has plans for a new Mars rover to launch in 2020, but doing so will consume nearly a third of all the plutonium-238 the agency has left - roughly 35kg.

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Cassini used a plutonium-238 powered RTG to explore the solar system

"The supply situation is already impacting mission planning," Alice Caponiti, a nuclear engineer who leads the DOE's efforts to restart plutonium-238 production, explained to WIRED.

"If you're planning a mission that's going to take eight years to plan, the first thing you're going to want to know is if you have power."

Freeing up funds for space agencies that are already cash-strapped appears to be the only way of realistically creating the incredibly complex and unstable isotope. The future of deep space exploration may hang in the balance.

Scott Blair - UK News
By Scott Blair - UK News 11/10/2017 12:47:00