Some scientists insist that the U. S. must urgently restart production of plutonium-238, but that effort depends on whether whether Congress will provide the $30 million requested by the administration earlier this year for the Department of Energy.
Plutonium-238 generates a considerable amount of heat, which can then be converted to electricity. (Nuclear weapons use plutonium-239.)
All that heat can be converted into electricity. “And this electricity is very, very useful, when you’re in a remote or a hostile environment,” says Johnson, “such as when you’re in space and when you’re too far away from sun to use solar power.”
Famed space missions have been powered by plutonium-238, such as the Voyager probes in the 1970s, Galileo prove that orbited Jupiter and the Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn.
But reserves of plutonium-238, a man-made material left over from the Cold War and no longer in production, are running low.
So have Russia’s reserves, from which the U.S. was buying for some time. Now those reserves are nearly depleted, too.
NASA says it has enough plutonium-238 for the next two missions — a Mars rover named the Mars Science Laboratory and another major mission — but the agency continues to face a sustainability issue.
The agency is experimenting with new, more efficient power conversion technology, but such technology would only slow use of a still-endangered material. (There is no alternate substitute for plutonium-238.)
That means NASA space exploration beyond the reaches of the sun — where it can use solar power — may get pushed to the back burner in the form of delays, limitations or outright cancellations.
The situation is so dire that even if production of plutonium-238 is restarted today, it would still take eight years to ramp up to making the roughly 11 pounds needed by NASA each year.
According to a NASA report issued in May, production would also cost in excess of $150 million.