A recent innovation might answer a major dilemma in deep space exploration. Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee recently formulated an ingenious way to speed up production of the plutonium isotope plutonium-238 (Pu-238) which is an indispensable element for deep space exploration. The solution is searched as NASA aspires to return to the outer solar system in the 2020s and start a new generation of deep-space missions.
Solar panels is a great way for powering spacecraft in the inner solar system but as the spacecraft goes farther away from the sun, the amount of sunlight that reaches it will become greatly insufficient. NASA's Juno mission, for instance, is the first spacecraft to visit Jupiter that is animated by solar panels — but the noble spacecraft needs three school bus-size panels to generate a minute 420 watts of electricity. That is just enough to power a half a dozen household light bulbs.
Radioactive plutonium is an effective power source for remote exploration that is far from the Sun. Trusty and lightweight, the radioactive element has a half-life of 87.7 years which means that it is still generating half its original output which is equivalent to 570 watts per kilogram for approximately nine decades after it was first used. Plutonium fueled Voyagers 1 and 2, which were launched in 1977 and are still going strong, 144.5 astronomical units (a.u.) and 119.7 a.u. from the Sun, respectively. In fact, any would-be alien salvagers could potentially date the probes' production by examining the trace amounts of radioactivity from their Pu-238 power source.
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