The Nuclear Arms Race and Deep Space Exploration

Wired has a fascinating article which focuses on the world’s dwindling supply of plutonium-238, a veritable super fuel in the field of deep space exploration:

In 1977, the Voyager 1 spacecraft left Earth on a four-year mission to explore Jupiter and Saturn. Thirty-six years later, the car-size probe is still exploring, still sending its findings home. It has now put more than 19 billion kilometers between itself and the sun. Last week NASA announced that Voyager 1 had become the first man-made object to reach interstellar space.

None of this would be possible without the spacecraft’s three batteries filled with plutonium-238. In fact, Most of what humanity knows about the outer planets came back to Earth on plutonium power.  Cassini’s ongoing exploration of Saturn, Galileo’s trip to Jupiter, Curiosity’s exploration of the surface of Mars, and the 2015 flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft are all fueled by the stuff.

But there’s a problem: We’ve almost run out.

Most of the US supply of plutonium-238 was a byproduct of producing bomb-grade nuclear material.  Nowadays, the material is in incredibly short supply with demand, unyielding.

Of course, we have the capability to make more, except for the reality that pitiful funding that is required has been so difficult to obtain:

Since 1994, scientists have pleaded with lawmakers for the money to restart production. The DOE believes a relatively modest $10 to 20 million in funding each year through 2020 could yield an operation capable of making between 3.3 and 11 pounds of plutonium-238 annually — plenty to keep a steady stream of spacecraft in business.

It took countless scientists and their lobbyists more than 15 years just to get lawmakers’ attention. Congressional committees squabbled over if and how to spend $20 million of taxpayers’ money — it took them three years to make up their minds

Any hiccups in funding for plutonium-238 production could put planetary science into a tailspin and delay, strip down, or smother nuclear-powered missions.

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