Houston – we need some plutonium

Pu-238 glowing with the heat of alpha radiation decay

Pu-238 glowing with the heat of alpha radiation

The outer Solar System is a dark and lonely place – solar energy drops off with the inverse square of distance to the Sun so a spaceship in orbit around Jupiter (5.5 times as far from the Sun as the Earth) receives only about 3% as much solar energy as one orbiting Earth. Solar panels do a great job of powering spacecraft out about as far as Mars but anything sent to the outer reaches of the Solar System needs to find some other source of power. For most spacecraft this means using plutonium – specifically the isotope Pu-238. And according to some recent reports, we might be running out this particular flavor of plutonium. Since we can’t visit the outer solar system on solar power and batteries have a limited lifespan, if we want to go past the asteroid belt we’ve got to go nuclear with either radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) or reactors. And according to a NASA scientist (quoted in the story linked to above) we are running out of Pu-238 – if we don’t take steps to either replenish our stocks or to develop an alternative then our deep space exploration might grind to a halt. But before getting into that, let’s take a quick look at why Pu-238 is such a good power source.

As with any other element, plutonium has a number of isotopes – Pu-239 is the one that fissions nicely enough to be used in nuclear weapons, and the slightly heavier version (Pu-240) also fissions nicely. These heavier plutonium isotopes are both produced in nuclear reactors when U-238 captures a neutron or two – any operating reactor produces them and, for that matter, fissioning these plutonium isotopes produces a significant amount of energy in any nuclear reactor. Pu-238 is also produced in reactors, but through a slightly more convoluted pathway. The bottom line is that useable quantities of plutonium – fissionable or non – are produced in reactors.

What makes Pu-238 valuable is that it decays away quite nicely and produces a boatload of energy when it decays – it has a long enough half-life (just a tad less than 88 years) to last for decades and it gives off a high-energy alpha particle (for those who are interested, the alpha energy is over 5.5 MeV).

So let’s look at how this is turned into energy. Plutonium-238 has a half-life of 87.7 years and a decay constant (a measure of the fraction of Pu-238 atoms that will decay in a year) of 0.0079. To get a bit geekish, if we can calculate the number of atoms in a kg of Pu-238 then we can multiply the number of atoms by the decay constant to figure out how many decays will occur in a given period of time. A kg of Pu-238 has about 2.5×1023 atoms – multiply this by the decay constant and we find that there should be about 2×1022 atoms decaying every year; a year has about 3.1×107 seconds so this will give a decay rate of about 6.4×1014 atoms every second. And since each decay carries with it about 5.5 million electron volts (MeV), 1 kg of Pu-238 produces 3.5×1015 MeV every second. Doing some unit conversions gives us an energy production of about 550 joules per second – one J/sec is 1 watt, so each kilogram of Pu-238 produces 550 watts of power. A 5-kg RTG (like the one that’s powering the Curiosity rover on Mars) will put out nearly 3 kW of thermal power. This is enough heat that a sufficiently large mass of Pu-238 will glow red-hot; captured, it can be transformed into electricity to power the spacecraft – with a 5% conversion efficiency from thermal to electrical energy, this 10 kg of Pu will produce about 150 watts of electrical power. There are more efficient ways of turning heat into electricity, but they all have their limitations or are untried technologies.

This is where the Pu-238 half-life comes into play – it will take 87.7 years for 50% of the Pu-238 (and for power production to drop by half), so power will drop by only about 0.8% in a year. The Pu-238 half life is short enough to make for a furious decay rate – enough to produce the power needed to run a spaceship – but long enough to last for the decades needed to reach Pluto (the destination of the New Horizons ship) or to linger in orbit around Jupiter and Saturn (a la Galileo and Cassini). Without RTGs powered by Pu-238 we can’t explore much beyond the asteroid belt. This is why the possible exhaustion of our stocks of this nuclide so alarms Adams. According to Adams, NASA has already delayed or cancelled a number of planned missions to the outer Solar System, including a mission to study Europa, whose oceans are considered a prime candidate as an abode for life outside of Earth. The Department of Energy estimates that an annual outlay of $20 million or less would be enough to supply NASA’s Pu-238 needs, but this amount has not been forthcoming.

The space program is controversial and has been controversial for a half-century. Some decried the spending on Apollo, in spite of the fact that it gave us humanity’s first steps on another world. The Shuttle program also came under fire for a number of reasons, as has the International Space Station. And unmanned programs have been criticized as well. The common thread in most of this criticism is a matter of money – asking why in the world we should spend billions of dollars to do something that doesn’t provide any tangible benefit to those of us on Earth. Those making this argument are those who are reluctant to spend (or waste, as they’d put it) a few tens of millions of dollars annually to power the spacecraft that could help us learn more about our cosmic neighborhood.

The economic argument is hard to refute on economic grounds – there’s no denying that close-up photos of Saturn’s rings or Titan’s hydrocarbon seas haven’t fed a single hungry person here at home. And for that matter, even finding life on Mars (or Europa) will not feed the hungry here on Earth. But there has got to be more to life than simple economics – if not then there would be no need for art, for music, for sports, or for any of the other things we do when we’re not working, eating, sleeping, or attending to personal hygiene.

Discussing the relative merits of “pure” science is beyond the scope of this post (although I did discuss it in an earlier post in this blog). But I think it’s worth pointing out that the public showed a genuine interest in the exploits of the Voyager probe, the Galileo mission, and the Cassini craft – not to mention the missions to Mars, Venus, and elsewhere. I’d like to think that the deep space program is worth another few tens of millions of dollars a year for the entertainment value alone – especially given the vast sums that are spent on movies and TV shows that are watched by fewer people and that provide little in the way of enlightenment or uplifted spirits.

One other point that’s worth considering is that NASA’s outer Solar System missions are billion-plus dollar missions and the cost of plutonium is a small fraction of this amount. While not a major part of the nation’s economy, NASA programs employ a lot of people throughout the US to design and build the machines and the rockets that loft them into space, not to mention everyone who works to collect and analyze the data as it comes to Earth. That our deep-space capacity and those who keep it running might grind to a halt for lack of a few tens of millions of dollars of plutonium is a shame. The loss of everything else that goes along with our space program – the influx of new knowledge, the cool pictures, the sense of pride that we can send a working spacecraft so far and can keep it working so long, and the sense of wonder that comes from considering (even if only for a short time) our place in the universe – losing this for want of a little plutonium would be a crime.

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