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NASA Running Low On Fuel For Space Exploration

timothy posted more than 5 years ago | from the let's-explore-earth-for-more dept.

NASA 282

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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buy it from North Korea or Iran (5, Funny)

stoolpigeon (454276) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866107)

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:buy it from North Korea or Iran (3, Interesting)

captaindomon (870655) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866215)

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.

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27866279)

Great idea. All we need to do is bitch-slap lil' Kim and tell him it's in his best interest :)

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (2)

Omniscient Lurker (1504701) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866299)

Other than the propping up of a dictator.

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (5, Funny)

snl2587 (1177409) | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (1)

sukotto (122876) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866813)

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:buy it from North Korea or Iran (3, Interesting)

Dogtanian (588974) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866869)

(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-Il is in power, gradually weaning them off their leaders over a period of years by pretending that these moves have been endorsed by their "beloved" leader and/or his "legitimate" successors until it converges with the real situation?

Of course, once they're truly weaned off the leader, the controlling forces would have to admit what had actually happened- a double mindfuck.

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (2, Insightful)

stoolpigeon (454276) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867061)

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.

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (4, Funny)

hardburn (141468) | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

A bit like this? (2, Funny)

David Gerard (12369) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867185)

[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 the full force of our mighty nuclear arsenal. Our dad will beat up your dad too."

North Korea conducted its first and only nuclear test in 2006, described as "completely successful" and "revealing new dimensions in gunpowder science."

North Korea's foreign ministry also said "the UN should apologise for infringing our sovereignty, retract all its resolutions and decisions against us and stop being big meanies. It's so unfair!"

It also announced plans to build a light-water nuclear reactor, a domestic robot, a flying car and a "really cool thing we haven't finished drawing yet, but expect to have ready soon as our great nation continues to make tremendous advances in crayon science."

Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il announced a glorious 30% increase in industrial output and a 35% increase in food production as the cardboard ran out and the factories started shaping raw contaminated mud into loaves. South Korea sighed at the news and looked forward to a peace dividend similar to that reaped by Germany in 1990 when the North finally collapses and they have to clean up the mess.

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (1)

Bakkster (1529253) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866935)

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.

The irony is, of course, that we would find weapons of mass destruction (hence the plutonium), but would probably use all of our oil to get it. We just can't win...

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (1)

Obfuscant (592200) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866449)

And funding his nuclear weapons program.

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (4, Insightful)

cayenne8 (626475) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866855)

"And funding his nuclear weapons program."

Why not fund our own nuclear power plants programs? Build more plants. Build the breeder reactors (and the newer reprocessing tech)...and along the lines, maybe a little of the 238 stuff can come off the line for NASA?

First, we need to repeal the Carter ban on such nuclear reprocessing...and then, start building nuke power plants.

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (1)

Alinabi (464689) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866965)

It's not unprecedented for the US to prop up dictators [wikipedia.org] in exchange for fuel

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27866335)

Something tells me we'd pay Kim Jong Il $150 million and get a brick by return mail.

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (1)

CohibaVancouver (864662) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866849)

Something tells me we'd pay Kim Jong Il $150 million and get a brick by return mail.

Marty: This is, uh, this is heavy-duty Doc! Does it run like on regular unleaded gasoline?

Doc: Unfortunately no. It requires something with a little more kick: Plutonium.

Marty: Uh, plutonium... Wait a minute, Doc, are you tellin me that this sucker is nuclear?!?

Doc: Hey, keep rolling, keep rolling there, No, no, no, no, this sucker's electrical, but it needs a nuclear reaction to generate the 1.21 jigawatts of electricity I need.

Marty: Doc, you don't just walk into a store and...and buy plutonium! Did you rip that off?!

Doc: Of course, from a group of Libyan nationalists. They wanted me to build them a bomb. So I took their plutonium and in turn gave them a shoddy bomb casing full of used pinball machine parts!

Come on, lets get you a radiation suit.

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (1)

mrdoogee (1179081) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867209)

Obviously we just need to install a Mr. Fusion on our space probes!

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (1)

rickb928 (945187) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867301)

Something tells me that we might get it from Kim Jong Il without asking. In fact, there may be several providers out there that would be HAPPY to send us some plutonium, for free. Special Delivery.

We could, I suppose see if Israel has any, or could make some. They wouldn't charge much, and it would be good stuff.

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (1)

OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866433)

Somehow I think it will be considered less-than-communist.

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (4, Funny)

Gat0r30y (957941) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866413)

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.

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866525)

Or if that wont work it looks like there is a decent chance we'll be able to buy some from the Ta1iban soon.

The hard part is disarming them before the spacecraft launch.
   

Re:buy it from North Korea or Iran (1)

Winchestershire (1495475) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866681)

I'm sure Iran and N.K. would be happy to get paid. But in all seriousness, this seems like something that would be, at the least, a tolerable use for spending some of Obama's billions on.

Well... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27866151)

Can't wind farms and solar energy suffice?

Read the gnikcuf summary (4, Funny)

tepples (727027) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866273)

Anonymous Coward might have been trying to make a bad joke:

Can't wind farms and solar energy suffice?

No. Wind farms work on the relative velocity between the ground and the atmosphere, but in space, there's no ground and almost no atmosphere. And the summary states: "there isn't enough sunlight to use solar panels".

Re:Read the gnikcuf summary (4, Funny)

Tanktalus (794810) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866821)

Never has a "woosh" post been more relevant than in a thread poking fun at wind power...

Re:Read the gnikcuf summary (2, Funny)

Lord Ender (156273) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867283)

Actually, you don't need an atmosphere to turn a windmill. They could be powered by the flows of the aether. This method (pushing against the aether) is the same means by which rockets move in space, so it's proven technology.

Hm, an idea (1, Interesting)

gcnaddict (841664) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866161)

I'm not a nuclear scientist by any means, but would it be possible to harvest the heat and radiation from spent fuel and convert that to electricity?

(I'm assuming this wouldn't be possible for gamma radiation, but alpha/beta radiation should be doable, as well as with simple residual heat)

Re:Hm, an idea (4, Interesting)

jd (1658) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866269)

Given that nuclear reprocessing plants, such as Sellafield, supplied a lot of weapons material for the British nuclear program, I'd be astonished if these could not extract all of the plutonium needed from those fuel rods that have been recycled this way.

Re:Hm, an idea (1)

meringuoid (568297) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867277)

Although Britain is planning to replace the Trident missile system, the warheads to be loaded onto the new missiles would be the same old ones, so this would not involve any new production of fissile materials. Same probably goes for France. I imagine it would be possible to write Sellafield a large cheque and have a lot of Pu-238 prepared specifically for space applications - God knows there are enough radioactives stacked up there already, it's not like there's a shortage of raw materials - but it would be fantastically expensive, and would be a political nightmare.

What's wrong with buying it in from Russia anyway? Are they really running so short? I understand the Russian landscape is littered with disused RTGs, to the extent that they have a minor problem with thieves looting the metals from the casings, and promptly dropping dead of radiation poisoning. Unmanned fixtures, lighthouses, communications relays, that kind of thing. Mostly old Soviet relics slowly rusting to bits. But the radioactives should still be there, and still hot. There must be enough to keep the world in spaceprobe RTGs for decades.

Re:Hm, an idea (2, Interesting)

OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866563)

Yes, however last time I checked that generated about 0.2 watts, which is beyond pitiful. You certainly need 200W to get a signal to earth, and probably more.

The problem is that the "waste" isotopes are too long-lived. It's not that they don't have energy, or that they don't radiate it out, but it takes too long (much like unenriched uranium : that's already been in the ground for about 3 billion years* and still not used).

* yes I know that's older than the earth is. That's because those isotopes were created the last time the sun went nova (or even 7 billion years old, the next-to-last time the sun went nova). They first existed in instellar cloud, then asteroid "ground", and finally earth ground.

Re:Hm, an idea (2, Insightful)

John Hasler (414242) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866941)

> That's because those isotopes were created the last time the sun went nova...

Speak for yourself. Our sun has never gone nova.

Re:Hm, an idea (4, Funny)

stoolpigeon (454276) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867153)

That's what your body thetans want you to think.

Look to newcomers? (0, Redundant)

Ryvar (122400) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866181)

Hey, maybe Iran or North Korea would let us borrow some of theirs!

Re:Look to newcomers? (4, Funny)

peragrin (659227) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866431)

problem is they will most likely want to deliver it themselves.

Re:Look to newcomers? (1)

cptnapalm (120276) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866511)

But Iran seems to be itching for quick delivery to Israel, so they might not be the best option.

$150 million is a ironic amount... (1)

revjtanton (1179893) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866185)

That's the exact amount of money a mad scientist would want to disarm a nuclear bomb he built himself and placed in a heavily populated area. A byproduct of his mad-genius nuke is the same plutonium-238 isotope, and he doesn't know what to do with it!!! We need to get these people together.

Could be worse, but... (1)

Iskender (1040286) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866189)

I just hope this lack of fuel won't cause problems, and doesn't href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/scienceandtechnology/technology/technologynews/5105

In unrelated news... (5, Funny)

turthalion (891782) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866191)

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...

In Soviet Russia... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27866227)

....Space probes You!!

This wouldn't be a problem if... (5, Insightful)

JoshuaZ (1134087) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866271)

We allowed breeder reactors or nuclear reprocessing at civilian reactors.

Re:This wouldn't be a problem if... (1)

RManning (544016) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866395)

We allowed breeder reactors or nuclear reprocessing at civilian reactors.

I don't know anything about nuclear power, but if breeder reactors and nuclear reprocessing produced what we needed, wouldn't that mean we could buy what we need from France? Problem solved, right?

Re:This wouldn't be a problem if... (5, Insightful)

JoshuaZ (1134087) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866513)

Most civilian reactors aren't breeder reactors because of the danger of nuclear proliferation. They still produce tiny amounts of plutonium 238, but not in large quantities. Similarly, there isn't much in the way of nuclear reprocessing. The countries which are the exceptions have generally been countries that want to have lots of nukes. The French don't have that much that would help out. At this point, India or China might though.

Re:This wouldn't be a problem if... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27866667)

They reprocessed sub reactor cores. They're the ones that have the Pu238. Civilian or weapons reactors make Pu239.

Re:This wouldn't be a problem if... (1)

KonoWatakushi (910213) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866745)

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.

Wind-up (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866293)

Just make the probes with wind-up springs. It works in the cartoons.

Alternatives? (4, Interesting)

pwnies (1034518) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866351)

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? (4, Informative)

compro01 (777531) | more than 5 years ago | (#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. (5, Interesting)

Dyinobal (1427207) | more than 5 years ago | (#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:Research. (2, Insightful)

cowscows (103644) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866611)

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 capabilities, so there's long been incentives beyond space-flight which could help convince people to develop alternative power sources. There might not be a good answer out there.

Re:Research. (1)

LWATCDR (28044) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866763)

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.

Re:Research. (1)

Dyinobal (1427207) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867189)

Ruling out existing methods isn't looking for new sources.

Re:Research. (1)

Lord Ender (156273) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867323)

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!

Inertia? (0)

snd_chaser (104514) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866391)

I thought the big fuel expense was breaking atmo. What happened to coasting in space?

Re:Inertia? (1)

vux984 (928602) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866573)

I thought the big fuel expense was breaking atmo. What happened to coasting in space?

Nothing. Coasting in space works great. But how do you plan to power the cameras and radios on it?

Out past jupiter the sun is too far away for us to get enough energy from solar. What else is there?

Need heat too, don't you? (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27866689)

I could be wrong, but I was under the impression that, in addition to the electricity needed to run cameras, sensors, the main CPU of the probes, and radio, etc, that part of the reason to use radioactive materials to power these deep space probes was to keep them warm enough that they could actually still operate? Doesn't the probe have to heat itself somehow?

Re:Inertia? (1)

AndersOSU (873247) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866613)

you need to keep your electronics powered and not-frozen. you also have to transmit your data.

Re:Inertia? (1)

Frequency Domain (601421) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866677)

How is inertia going to power sensors, communications gear, and attitude gyros? They're not talking about fuel for propulsion, they're talking about fuel to keep the onboard equipment working.

Beam energy? (0)

LoudMusic (199347) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866397)

The people at NASA are far more intelligent than myself, I'm ok with admiting that. But it seems like one large solar collector nearer the Sun that then uses lasers or microwaves to beam the energy to traveling devices on their way out of the solar system might actually work.

Re:Beam energy? (5, Funny)

stoolpigeon (454276) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866451)

You're right. About the first part.

Re:Beam energy? (1)

ruckc (111190) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866717)

oops accidentally modded you troll instead of funny... posting to retract bad moderation

Re:Beam energy? (3, Insightful)

CastrTroy (595695) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866695)

Except that they don't actually travel in a straight line away from the sun. They use the slingshot effect [wikipedia.org] to travel a couple orbits around the sun and build up lots of speed. It would probably be very hard to aim the laser the correctly on a moving target millions of miles away.

Re:Beam energy? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27866845)

The real issue isn't hitting a moving target a million miles away, that is doable in theory if there is nothing BETWEEN you and the object. Now, try to hit a moving target using line of sight in a space filled with a countless number of random targets while trying to calculate the trajectory of the target as it is acted upon by the gravitational pull of any object within range.

Only $150 mil? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27866399)

Shit, the Federal Reserve is printing that much money in a week nowadays. It can't be that hard for NASA to get a slice. Couldn't they just threaten a banker or two with Rods from God over their mansions or something?

Failing that, Obama's got a trillion dollar budget - that's 100,000 millions. Surely they could slip a line item into page 247 easy-as-you-please and nobody will know the difference since they never read the damn bills anyway.

NASA needs to learn how this country operates now and get with the program.

Re:Only $150 mil? (1)

geoffrobinson (109879) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866585)

I wish it was only $150 million a week.

Uranus is dark? (1, Insightful)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866421)

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

Just bring Uranus closer to the sun.
           

Re:Uranus is dark? (4, Funny)

twidarkling (1537077) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866663)

No, remember, Uranus is where the sun doesn't shine.

Re:Uranus is dark? (1)

SupremoMan (912191) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867029)

Who modded that Insightful instead of Funny? God damn Vulcan mods!

Re:Uranus is dark? (1)

cashman73 (855518) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867295)

Just bring Uranus closer to the sun.

Or just wait another year when Jupiter explodes into a new Sun. After all, we already know that the Great Red Spot is shrinking [cnn.com] . Just don't send any space probes to Europa, and we should be ok,... ;-)

Plenty of Warheads to Reprocess (4, Insightful)

Deus777 (535407) | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

Try the French (1)

VernonNemitz (581327) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866465)

The French have made bombs, too, and they are big on breeder reactors that produce (and consume) lots of plutonium.

Just use Chinese toys instead (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866485)

nuf sed

Newkyaler (0, Offtopic)

mgkimsal2 (200677) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866541)

It's pronounced "newkyaler" - the S is silent.

Re:Newkyaler (1)

lwsimon (724555) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866883)

I don't understand why people had such a hissy fit over this. That *is* the correct pronunciation in half the country.

Re:Newkyaler (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27867027)

Because people like to seize on little differences they can use to make themselves feel superior. This is especially true amongst nerds, who feel inferior to pretty much everybody. It's sad, really.

about time (1)

hurfy (735314) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866631)

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....)

sounds pretty bogus (0)

Un pobre guey (593801) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866641)

This sounds a lot like a teenager throwing a tantrum for a certain specific purpose, deliberately pretending there are no other alternatives. Surely the great minds at NASA can get hold of several newer, better, cheaper alternatives to Pu 238?

Re:sounds pretty bogus (4, Insightful)

LWATCDR (28044) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866925)

Uhh.. No your wrong.
Really RTGs are actually simple, cheap, and effective. Solar will not work well past the orbit of Mars, Reactors are more expensive, complex, and weigh more.
So sparky you tell me what can produce power for years without much light, heat, or air, and has a mass of less then 60 kgs?
Oh and "I am sure they can think of something" is not an answer.

Re:sounds pretty bogus (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27867071)

It's "you're wrong" not "your wrong"

Re:sounds pretty bogus (1)

Un pobre guey (593801) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867097)

No need to be snide or allow your knee-jerk reactions to kick in.

"'I am sure they can think of something' is not an answer"

It isn't? What, do they expect slashdot users to come up with something? Aren't they paid to do this? Didn't they see this coming 20 or 30 years ago? Do NASA scientists wait until the last minute to solve something like this? Of course they have to think of something, that's what their job entails. If they ran out of Pu 238 they can either 1) make or get more, or 2) figure something else out. If you have another alternative, "Sparky," please clue us in.

Re:sounds pretty bogus (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27867119)

Yes, "they can think of something" is a perfectly acceptable answer. They have to. Can you do better?
What?
No?
Then get off your high-horse, kiddo.

Pu-238 is hard to beat for this application (1)

tlambert (566799) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867319)

Pu-238 is hard to beat for this application

Pu-238 is used because it is relatively short-lived and is not easily fissile (low multiplication factor), and instead experiences relatively rapid Alpha decay.

Like most alpha decay, it generates heat as a decay byproduct. Unlike Pu-239, which has a half life of a little over 24,000 years, the Pu-238 half-life is a little under 90 years, which makes it a better thermal source for use in power generation (Pu-239 decays way to slowly to be used as an Alpha decay based heat source).

Trying to convert to something like Pu-239 from decommissioned nuclear weapons (for example) would require converting to using fission by-products instead, which would require shielding against the Beta decay and fast neutrons (Alpha particles can be shielded with nothing more than paraffin). This would add a lot of mass to the probe itself - both for shielding the sensitive components, and for carrying a large enough sub-critical mass of Pu-239 to induce spontaneous subcritical fission.

In fact, all in all, Pu-238 is one of only a few materials that could be used for this application.

-- Terry

about plutonium (3, Informative)

codemaster2b (901536) | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

Re:about plutonium (1)

Kjella (173770) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867205)

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.

Great investment... (0, Troll)

jcwayne (995747) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866725)

Plutonium-238 for 2015 delivery now trading at $852,272.73 per ounce.

Two Birds (0, Troll)

Gim Tom (716904) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866727)

This is a golden opportunity. Just develop an automobile with a Stirling Engine heated with PU-238 and let all the oil companies in on the action. In no time PU-238 will be EVERYWHERE! Results - Reduced CO2 output, cars that go 1,000,000 miles on a fill up, and the a better than even chance at population reduction!

The US has a source (3, Interesting)

sjbe (173966) | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

Re:The US has a source (1)

Professor_UNIX (867045) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867297)

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.

They Need a Mr. Fusion (0, Troll)

caffeinejolt (584827) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866827)

See here: http://images.google.com/images?q=mr+fusion [google.com] . Mr Fusion was pioneered after problems dealing with Iranians who historically had supplied Plutonium out of the back of their VW Bus.

In your face, Edwin Starr! (5, Funny)

Guido del Confuso (80037) | more than 5 years ago | (#27866867)

War! Huh! What is it good for?

Space exploration, apparently.

Re:In your face, Edwin Starr! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27866995)

It occurred to me that this might be just one silly excuse to prop up the nuke arms industry.

Really???? (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27866877)

Are there people in this country naive enough to believe the United States hasn't made a nuclear device in 20 years??

V'Ger (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27866887)

Just launch the probes with enough fuel to get out of the solar system and a cardboard sign listing the desired destination.

Not all plutonium is the same (5, Informative)

tylersoze (789256) | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

yeah... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27866953)

I hope we start sourcing it from other countries so be the price - when will the human population realize we can't live on this planet forever... If we are a superior race we must realize that colonizing other areas of space are necessary for our survival.

Cheap! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27867009)

$150 million? That's nothing compared to public spending for bailouts. Seriously, that's even less than all the managers at AIG got in bonuses this year.

A wonderful problem to have (0)

goodmanj (234846) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867025)

Can I just say how *great* it is to have this problem? Oh noes, the world is running out of weapons-grade plutonium!

As another poster [slashdot.org] pointed out, we can cannibalize deployed nuclear weapons if we need more for space exploration, but seriously, this is awesome. More plutonium in space = less plutonium down here.

Just one more instance where liberal ideas fail (0, Troll)

Xaoswolf (524554) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867285)

Solar power just doesn't work. When will people learn this...

Peace Dividend (1)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 5 years ago | (#27867289)

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.

Go green!!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27867303)

Why not use wind power?

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