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NASA will allow plutonium powered spacecraft – reversing previous policy prohibiting this dangerous system

NASA to allow nuclear power systems for next Discovery mission, Space News by Jeff Foust — WASHINGTON — Citing progress in producing plutonium-238, NASA will allow scientists proposing missions for an upcoming planetary science competition to use nuclear power sources.

In a statement issued March 17, Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said the agency was reversing an earlier decision prohibiting the use of radioisotope power systems for spacecraft proposed for the next mission in the agency’s Discovery program.

A “long-range planning information” announcement about plans for the competition, issued Dec. 12, said that the use of such power systems would not be allowed, although missions could use radioisotope heater units, which use a very small amount of plutonium to keep spacecraft elements warm.

NASA made that decision based on projected use of existing stocks of plutonium-238 for upcoming missions, such as the Mars 2020 rover. Dragonfly, one of the two finalists for the next New Frontiers medium-class planetary science mission, also plans to use a radioisotope power system, as well as potential future missions the moon that require nuclear power to operate through the two-week lunar night.

“We have some liens against the radioisotope power,” Green said at a Feb. 21 meeting of NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Group, citing those upcoming missions. The agency, he said, needed to balance mission demands against existing stocks of plutonium and efforts currently ramping up to produce new supplies of the isotope, which should reach a goal of 1.5 kilograms a year by around 2022. “The last thing we want to do is to select a mission and then not be ready to fly it.”

At the time of the meeting last month, though, Green said the agency was reviewing the prohibition against using nuclear power for the Discovery competition at the request of the scientific community, but didn’t offer a schedule for completing that review…….


March 21, 2018 - Posted by | technology, USA

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