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NASA Power Space The Military Science

NASA Running Low On Fuel For Space Exploration 282

Posted by timothy
from the let's-explore-earth-for-more dept.
smooth wombat writes "With the end of the Cold War came warmer relations with old adversaries, increased trade and a world less worried about nuclear war. It also brought with it an unexpected downside: lack of nuclear fuel to power deep space probes. Without this fuel, probes beyond Jupiter won't work because there isn't enough sunlight to use solar panels, which probes closer to the sun use. The fuel NASA relies on to power deep space probes is plutonium-238. This isotope is the result of nuclear weaponry, and since the United States has not made a nuclear device in 20 years, the supply has run out. For now, NASA is using Soviet supplies, but they too are almost exhausted. It is estimated it will cost at least $150 million to resume making the 11 pounds per year that is needed for space probes."
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NASA Running Low On Fuel For Space Exploration

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  • by stoolpigeon (454276) * <bittercode@gmail> on Thursday May 07, 2009 @04:18PM (#27866107) Homepage Journal

    Or if that wont work it looks like there is a decent chance we'll be able to buy some from the Taliban soon.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by captaindomon (870655)
      The parent post was tongue-in-cheek, but seriously, it's something to consider. North Korea needs money badly. The United States doesn't want them to have nuclear materials. The United States has money and needs nuclear materials. Why don't we just buy it from them? It solves a lot of different problems.
      • Other than the propping up of a dictator.
        • by snl2587 (1177409) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @04:32PM (#27866445)

          Nah, we'll just invade a few years later searching for weapons of mass destruction. Then, after a few short weeks, the dictator will be gone, we'll have our plutonium, and (as a side benefit) the North Korean people will love us! Foolproof plan.

          • by sukotto (122876)

            Well, the people won't love you. But hey... Two out of three ain't bad.

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_Tf2lQvDz0 [youtube.com]

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Dogtanian (588974)

            (as a side benefit) the North Korean people will love us!

            Joking aside, were it to happen, I believe that liberation of the North Korean people would open a massive can of worms.

            Given that they've lived under an all-encompassing veil of propaganda and likely have a totally skewed worldview, can you imagine what would happen if the government fell and (e.g.) UN forces went in?

            What do you tell these people? How will they react? How will you govern them?

            Would it be necessary to exploit the existing propaganda machine to create the false impression that Kim Jong

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by stoolpigeon (454276) *

              I haven't been there - and I've only talked with a couple people that have been close, on the China side, but I've got the feeling that for many of the people getting fed on a regular basis is high enough a priority that they wont care where it comes from or who is in charge.

            • by hardburn (141468) <hardburn@wumpus-cav e . n et> on Thursday May 07, 2009 @05:07PM (#27867065)

              What do you tell these people? How will they react? How will you govern them?

              It can work, as long as you think about these issues along with the rest of the invasion plan. Going in and just expecting to be greeted as liberators is criminally naive.

            • [wavy lines, as we look into the crystal ball [today.com] ...]

              North Korea has threatened to carry out nuclear missile tests unless the UN Security Council apologises for its "unseemly snickering" at their recent rocket launch falling into the sea.

              "The communications satellite was successfully launched and is fulfilling its mission, sending transmissions from Pacific Ocean life in deep space," a Pyongyang communique said today. "If the UN does not take back its grievous slanders, we will be forced to retaliate with th

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by dfenstrate (202098)

              Joking aside, were it to happen, I believe that liberation of the North Korean people would open a massive can of worms.

              Given that they've lived under an all-encompassing veil of propaganda and likely have a totally skewed worldview, can you imagine what would happen if the government fell and (e.g.) UN forces went in?

              What do you tell these people? How will they react? How will you govern them?

              I'm pretty sure they can tell they're being lied to, that their lives are not how they should be, and something is

              • by Belial6 (794905) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @05:37PM (#27867583)
                Given the amount of propaganda that people right here in the US go for hook line and sinker, it would seem shocking to find that a good portion of the North Korean people don't believe a good portion of what they are being told.
                • I expected a cheap shot like this, so here's my answer:
                  The 'Propaganda' you refer to is generally about far-away places and events, and therefor any contrast with reality would not be apparent.

                  These people are being fed bullshit about the workings of their daily lives, and are required to participate in the lies or be hauled off to the gulag. There is a big difference between 'stoopid americans falling for propaganda about WMD/Iraq Lollerskates!!11Lol!' and Koreans believing or not believing the nonsense th

                  • by Schemat1c (464768) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @05:59PM (#27867973) Homepage

                    The 'Propaganda' you refer to is generally about far-away places and events, and therefor any contrast with reality would not be apparent.

                    No. American propaganda is alive and well but it has different goals. Korea is about obeying and serving your god-like leader. American is about consuming and consuming and is so successful that it's very difficult to get people to even see it.

                    One good method is to go backpacking for a month. You'd be amazed at how obvious and vulgar it all is when you return to 'civilization'.

                • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                  by acb (2797)

                  The difference between the USA and North Korea is that North Korea is as close to a perfect example of a totalitarian state as has probably ever existed. The state is everywhere, in every aspect of its citizens' lives, to the point where they have internalised it. (Witness, for example, reports from the train explosion in the north of North Korea a few years ago, which stated that many citizens perished going back into their burning houses to rescue their portraits of Kim Jong Il, and imagine, for a moment,

            • by sgt scrub (869860)

              What do you tell these people?

              Pickled cabbage only taste good when Germans do it?

            • I've always thought it would be interesting to take someone that lived in the jungle their whole life into a movie theater, and show them the latest movie. How would they react? Would they be able to tell it was just a movie, or would they hit the floor? I think that would work with North Korea. Something tells me (from the few crap video's i've seen from there) that they have never really seen special effects (besides government photoshopping, of course) and they might just crap their pants watching the

        • by Obfuscant (592200)
          And funding his nuclear weapons program.
        • by Alinabi (464689)
          It's not unprecedented for the US to prop up dictators [wikipedia.org] in exchange for fuel
          • You are right. What most people do not know, is that the price of oil did not rise because of greed. If went back to the normal market price, where it should have been, but wasn't because of greed. Many OPEC leaders were bribed and threatened, and gave away the oil below market price, at the expense of the people there. Then China came along, and wanted oil too. So much that the USA were not the sole client that you needed to survive. Suddenly they could sell it to them at the normal price, and tell the USA

            • by Nutria (679911)

              That would explain the price surge from $50/bbl to $150/bbl, but, since we and China and India are buying just about as much as we used to, not the precipitous drop back to $50.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        The United States has money and needs nuclear materials. Why don't we just buy it from them?

        Since when does the United States have money? I thought they went broke shortly after the second world war.
        I am getting so moded down for this.

    • by Gat0r30y (957941) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @04:31PM (#27866413) Homepage Journal

      there is a decent chance we'll be able to buy some from the Taliban soon.

      Buy it from Pakistan now, before the Taliban takes over.

      • by DrBuzzo (913503) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @05:25PM (#27867419) Homepage
        No. You can't buy it from Pakistan. Pakistan may be producing nuclear weapons using PLUTONIUM-239, but would have no production capability for Pu-238. Pu-238 is derived from neptunium-237 which may be a byproduct of reprocessing of breeder reactor stock, but is not a weapon material. The difficulty with separation of Np-237 and then the use of a high flux reactor to irradiate it and then reprocess it into Pu-238 means nobody would do so unless they needed the isotope for a certain purpose, like RTG's.
  • by turthalion (891782) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @04:23PM (#27866191) Homepage
    In news unrelated to their shortage of plutonium, NASA is also looking for a buyer for a shiny bomb casing full of used pinball machine parts...
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Jon Abbott (723)

      Precisely! Instead of all this nuclear material, NASA could just use... a bolt of lightning.

  • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @04:26PM (#27866271) Homepage
    We allowed breeder reactors or nuclear reprocessing at civilian reactors.
    • The advantage of a breeder reactor like the IFR [wikipedia.org] is that it uses a fuel cycle in which this is effectively impossible. You would need to run a completely different fuel cycle, and likewise, the type of reprocessing facilities required are completely different. This is a good thing.

      If we really need more Plutonium, we should be looking to dismantle our weapons stockpile instead. It is way way beyond what could ever be considered reasonable.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Waffle Iron (339739)

      We allowed breeder reactors or nuclear reprocessing at civilian reactors.

      Where do you get that idea? RTGs run on Pu-238, a specific isotope of plutonium which has nothing to do with Pu-240 reactor fuel or weapon material.

      This substance is only called plutonium because it has 94 protons per atom. It may have chemical properties in common with other isotopes with 94 protons, but its nuclear properties have no relation whatsoever. It is not a significant direct byproduct of nuclear reactors.

      Breeder reactors and reprocessing efforts would in fact attempt to *avoid* creating this iso

  • Alternatives? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by pwnies (1034518) * <j@jjcm.org> on Thursday May 07, 2009 @04:28PM (#27866351) Homepage Journal
    I know Sr-90 is often also used in similar devices (mainly Russian ones), any reason why we can't switch to that?
    • Re:Alternatives? (Score:5, Informative)

      by compro01 (777531) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @05:17PM (#27867269)

      Sr-90 is not a good as Pu-238 for 3 reasons.

      1. Shorter half life (28.8 years vs. 87.7), thus the power drops off faster.
      2. Lower energy density, thus less power to start with, or more weight.
      3. It produces beta radiation (Pu-238 produces alpha radiation) and requires much more shielding (and thus more weight) so it doesn't mess with the electronics.

  • Research. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Dyinobal (1427207) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @04:29PM (#27866383)
    Necessity is the mother of all invention. Lets take this opportunity to find a new method of powering probes for such long distance missions.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by cowscows (103644)

      I kind of see your point, but given the lack of funding that NASA is generally dealing with these days, I'd imagine they'd probably rather spend their research dollars solving newer problems, rather than having to find another solution to something that was basically solved. It was a good solution too. RTG's are reasonably simple as far as nuclear technology goes, they're durable, and they last a long time.

      Also, there's plenty of earth-bound activities which would benefit from a power source of similar capa

    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      They did and this is it.
      1. Solar will not work for deep space probes. That thing called the inverse square law really comes into play out past Mars.
      2. No gas stations and no air so forget about burning anything.
      3. You could use a reactor but it would be a lot more complex than an RTG. It would be more expensive to build and to launch.

      • by Dyinobal (1427207)
        Ruling out existing methods isn't looking for new sources.
        • Re:Research. (Score:5, Insightful)

          by LWATCDR (28044) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @05:38PM (#27867605) Homepage Journal

          Holy freaking Hanna!
          Okay lets take a look at what this "New energy source" has to do.
          1. Supply several hundred watts for at least a decade without refueling. RTGs from the 70s are still working and the probes that use them still sending data.
          2. Work in a vacuum.
          3. Work in the Dark.
          4. Work in the extreme cold of the outer solar system.
          5. Be light An RTG has a mass of under 60 kg.
          6. Dependable. Must work for decades with nobody to fix it.

          Just what the heck do you think can do that that isn't an RTG?
          We don't have working fusion so we are left with reactors but they are not as light or as simple as RTGs.
          More mass means a bigger launch vehicle. That means a lot more money and fewer missions.

          I love the way people on Slashdot are so willing to make comments like "They just need to find a replacment". Doesn't anybody ever consider that fact that this is the best solution there is without some massive technical leap? And that technical leap may be many decades away if it ever comes!

    • Uranium has a half-life, right? It's a use-it-or-lose-it fuel source. I say we use as much of it as we can before it goes to waste!

    • by khallow (566160)
      Plutonium 238 RTGs fit a niche that doesn't have any good substitutes. It has a half life of 88 years and releases 5 MeV alpha particles when it decays. Close radiological isotopes might be radium 226 or tritium (hydrogen 3). The former has a half life of 1600 years and the latter a half life of 12 years. I don't think there's much in between and my crude math indicates that neither other isotope choice has a power density within a factor of ten of plutonium 238.
    • The first one to figure out how the power a device with the stored smugness of prius owners is going to make a mint!

  • by Deus777 (535407) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @04:33PM (#27866455)
    The US still has plenty of nuclear warheads that could be retired and their plutonium used for this purpose, unless for some reason the fuel has degraded.
    President Obama has suggested additional reductions in nuclear arms held by the US and Russia, so perhaps the plutonium from those could be used.
    Or perhaps NASA could adapt their generators to use plutonium 239, which they could get from a Fast Breeder reactor [wikipedia.org], if we ever build one.
    • by hardburn (141468)

      Pu-238 is used for these because it's an almost pure alpha emitter. Among other things, this makes it easy to design a foolproof casing in the event of a launch failure.

    • President Obama has suggested additional reductions in nuclear arms held by the US and Russia

      The President needs a big clue. Those nuclear arms are for deterrence against all the suicidal nutjobs out there trying to get their hands on their own bombs. I mean we need some way to convince them not to strap a nuke on and walk into a city and...

      Wait. Let me get back to you.

    • Weapons contain Pu-239. NASA needs Pu-238.

      > Or perhaps NASA could adapt their generators to use plutonium 239

      Pu-239 won't work. It has much too long a half-life.

  • The French have made bombs, too, and they are big on breeder reactors that produce (and consume) lots of plutonium.
  • It's about time we found something more expensive than the refills for my inkjet.

    (If you are going to tell me to wait to post about mentioning how long....)

  • about plutonium (Score:3, Informative)

    by codemaster2b (901536) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @04:43PM (#27866653)
    Weapons-grade plutonium is made by refining nuclear waste in a reactor. This process reduces nuclear waste by 95%, but is frowned upon by the major nuclear powers because it produces weapons-grade plutonium, and no one wants to be manufacturing bomb-making material. They've been doing it since the 1940's so its not new or anything. The problem is also that such manufacture is illegal on an international scale.

    The article says that P-238 is used as a power source because of the heat is causes during decay. Surely someone could come up with a better power source for these probes than a rare isotope. I'm not even sure than this plutonium could be manufactured by refining nuclear waste, since that process produces P-239.
    • by Kjella (173770)

      Surely someone could come up with a better power source for these probes than a rare isotope.

      Stable materials don't give off any energy to speak of. Radioactive isotopes do, obviously highly powerful with an acceptable halflife is desirable but thus also rare. There's not many others in that category and if there was they'd probably be nuke material too. What's the alternative? No battery would deliver that much power for that long in a reliable fashion.

    • Re:about plutonium (Score:4, Informative)

      by dfenstrate (202098) <dfenstrate@gm a i l .com> on Thursday May 07, 2009 @05:33PM (#27867531)

      The article says that P-238 is used as a power source because of the heat is causes during decay. Surely someone could come up with a better power source for these probes than a rare isotope. I'm not even sure than this plutonium could be manufactured by refining nuclear waste, since that process produces P-239.

      The thing is that nuclear fission and decay have a higher energy density, by a factor of at least six orders of magnitude, than anything else*.
      Storing an equivalent amount of any other type of energy source would require increasing the craft size by a factor of a million or so. If you can't use solar, some sort of nuclear generation is the only alternative.

      Now, if you mean maybe they can find a less-rare isotope to work with, well, maybe. They have $150 million reasons to look for decent alternatives.

      *I work at a nuclear power plant, and we generate 1.2 gigawatts of electrical power for a year and a half on a low enrichment 12' cube of uranium. The coal required to produce the same amount of power would fill about 60 miles of 500' long coal-hauling ships. Batteries have even less density than that.

    • > Surely someone could come up with a better power source for these probes than a rare
      > isotope.

      Someone such as you, perhaps? Have at it.

    • by caluml (551744)

      Surely someone could come up with a better power source for these probes than a rare isotope.

      Yeah, I'll do it. I've got a few minutes spare in an hour or so. I'll come up with something quickly, I'm sure. I mean, it's got to be piss-easy, right? I'm actually sort of surprised no-one else has bothered. Stupid lazy nuclear scientists.

  • The US has a source (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sjbe (173966) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @04:51PM (#27866785)

    There is a source available. Just decommission a few nuclear warheads each year. Since the US has enough nuclear weapons [wikipedia.org] to basically end civilization, I suspect some could be spared without meaningfully degrading national security.

    • I don't think it's worth risking not having enough operational nuclear warheads to ensure global-thermo-nuclear annihilation just to fuel a bunch of stupid probes. What if the fuel in one of those probes was the difference between the end of all mankind and human civilization continuing after a war? Would you want to have that to worry about on your plate on top of the fact that your family was vaporized and you're living underground? I don't think so.

    • by wowbagger (69688) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @05:37PM (#27867601) Homepage Journal

      "Just decommission a few nuclear warheads each year."

      Except that nuclear warheads use Plutonium-239, and the power plants NASA uses are based on Plutonium-238.

      And converting Pu-239 into Pu-238 is much more difficult than converting rad-waste into Pu-238.

    • Weapons do not contain Pu-238 which is what NASA needs for their thermoelectric generators. Pu-239, which is what is used in weapons, won't do.

  • by Guido del Confuso (80037) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @04:56PM (#27866867)

    War! Huh! What is it good for?

    Space exploration, apparently.

  • by tylersoze (789256) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @05:00PM (#27866947)

    To all the smart alecks, no they can't use weapons grade plutonium, which is 239, they need 238, which has a much shorter half-life (88 y compared to 24100 y) and therefore gives off much more energy. They don't need an isoptope that is fissile, they need one with a short half-life.

  • After the US won the Cold War, we agreed to buy their huge nuke stockpile that they agreed to give up. Then Bush Sr didn't buy it with the money (the Democratic) Congress put out. Then the Republican Congress that took over deleted the money so Clinton couldn't buy it.

    Now the Russians have a nuke stockpile, and we don't even have enough plutonium to run a space program.

    Nice work. Notice who prevented the proper processing of the most essential peace dividend.

  • by JJRRutgers (595466) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @05:40PM (#27867635)
    "I'm sure that in 1985 plutonium is available in every corner drug store, but in 1955 it's a little hard to come by."
  • probes beyond Jupiter won't work because there isn't enough sunlight to use solar panels

    Then just have the probes bring the sun with them...

  • by Anonymous Cowpat (788193) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @07:56PM (#27870087) Journal

    It looks like their stocks are literally decaying away!

    Bwahahahahahaha...ahaha...ha...ha..h

    Yeah, I'll get my coat.

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