US restarts production of plutonium-238 to power space missions

In an effort to avert an outer space energy crisis, the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has restarted production of plutonium-238 (PU-238) after almost 30 years. The civilian stockpile of the plutonium isotope used to power the radiothermal generators (RTG) that make electricity for US deep space probes has dwindled to only 35 kg (77 lb), so the first 50 g (1.7 oz) of plutonium oxide produced by the laboratory marks a major turnaround in American space capabilities.

PU-238 is an unstable isotope of plutonium with a half life of 87.7 years. As it decays into uranium-234, each gram produces about 0.5 watts of thermal power, which allows small RTGs to power spacecraft far from the Sun or on the surface of planets without the need for solar panels.

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