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The Plutonium Problem

October 10, 2013

Hey everyone, I’m back!! I spent most of the last couple weeks in lab as an over-caffeinated lunatic because I was trying to get my work together for a scientific conference. It was all very important because somehow I had to trick people into thinking I knew things (LOL)

mmm yes, science, yes hmmm


I want to tell you guys about the Plutonium Problem. Plutonium is the radioactive element we use to make batteries for space probes and rovers. It’s got the best ratio of energy production to weight – which is important to consider when you need to launch this sucker out of Earth’s gravitational field. Other energy sources simply aren’t up to the task or weigh far too much to be feasible. So, we use plutonium. To be more specific, we use the kind of plutonium that has 94 protons and 144 neutrons… called plutonium-238.

Plutonium-238 glowing from it’s own heat, like a boss.

Now – this type of plutonium can be considered a sort of “nice” radioactive element. In a battery it provides a small amount of power but also produces a bit of heat. This is helpful for space probes because it keeps their systems a little warmer and helps them work properly. Now, there’s a cousin of this element called plutonium-239, and this guy can be used to make nuclear reactors (cool), and nuclear bombs (really uncool).

So what exactly is the problem? The problem is that we are almost COMPLETELY out of plutonium-238. There are currently about 36lbs left on this planet. That’s only enough to make three more Curiosity-sized rovers, because he’s got a solid 10lbs of the stuff powering his joy ride across the red planet. And it’s not just rovers we’re talking about here – it’s all kinds of space probes. Even Voyager I, the probe that has finally been confirmed to have left the solar system, has been chugging away with triplet plutonium-238 batteries for the last few decades. The vast majority of our space exploration has utilized this power source – it’s allowed for the discovery of many moons around Saturn, photographs of geologically active moons near Jupiter, the discovery that liquid water once flowed on the surface of Mars. So thanks, plutonium-238! You sure are swell.

Without plutonium-238, we would never have seen this close-up of Jupiter’s moon, Callisto… complete with the largest impact crater we’ve ever seen in this solar system. BOOM. Literally.

The fact is, plutonium-238 can be produced by scientists with facilities that already exist. Unfortunately, they were shut down after the Cold War because they can also be used to produce plutonium-239, the annoying bomb-makey cousin. So where does that leave us? Essentially the future of space exploration is grim. We don’t have enough fuel to power many more missions, and because these things take decades of planning, most future projects have been delayed or canned. Why bother putting the man-power into planning when you might not get the plutonium-power for the end product? Essentially, this whole problem makes me CRAZY sad.

Me, like… every single time I think about this.

Even if we did get the green light for production of plutonium-238, it’s not like we can just instantly generate a stockpile. It takes a lot of time, a lot of other rare elements (like neptunium-237), and a lot of careful planning just to make a little bit.

Basically our beloved space scientists are faced with a difficult task. One solution would be to convince the world that it’s okay for scientists to start producing new radioactive material. Somehow I think they won’t go for the whole, “hey guys we pinky we won’t make bombs!” approach. Another, more likely solution might be finding a new type of energy source to fuel these batteries. Perhaps by inventing some new technology we could circumvent our requirement for the precious plutonium and get back to our space exploring bidness. The tough part will be generating power without any sort of vibration, because most space probes have to take long exposure images. Any sort of combustion or piston driven devices would need to overcome this obstacle (and many others) to be viable battery technology.

It’s hard to get these stunning images if the damn camera won’t stay still

In any case – I believe in NASA and other space agencies around the world. I think that we are in dire need of a new solution, but necessity is the mother of invention! Perhaps a new Einstein is currently making his way through the awkward teen years and high school physics… only to invent some crazy technology that will make the Plutonium Problem a moot point. VIVA LA SPACE EXPLORATION!


From → SPACE

  1. William permalink

    Damn life getting in the way, I thought for sure you’d have a heyday during WSW. But (unfortunately) this post is very fitting for the end of it. The underlying theme is something that plagues us as a species; do our scientific and technological advancements outpace our ability to mature to use them responsibly. Plutonium 238 is a great example of short sighted, impulsive greed winning out and that really sucks. I tried a couple times to elaborate, but I can’t do so without ranting.

    I too hope they discover an alternative fuel source (should we add ‘can’t be weaponized’ to the already near impossible requirement list?). Space exploration can’t end like this. Aliens plucking our crafts and telling us they’re tired of our space pollution, totally understandable, we had a good run. Indifferent, selfish bastards would enjoy killing (or posturing), no. They need to take a couple deep breaths, relax, watch some Curiosity videos and rethink their lives.

  2. I actually heard the renowned brain scientist George Paxinos give a talk once in which he described the human brain as EXACTLY the wrong size. It’s large enough that we can make these massive technological advances, but still too small to realize our impact on the planet. We are, in fact, the first species to evolve with the ability to threaten all life on Earth. Not just cause the extinction of another competitor species, but literally all other life as we know it. We are a dangerous combination of genious and ignorance – hence the existence of atomic bombs.

    But on the FAR less gloomy side of that coin… humanity is also capable of amazing feats of intelligence and passion. The Mars rovers are a really great example of that! Years and years of planning, the brain power (and elbow grease) of countless engineers, scientists, mechanics, spokespeople, etc – all of that went into the combined effort to imagine/build/launch/land these little guys on another freaking PLANET!! It’s breathtaking what the human race is capable of when we just work together. 🙂

  3. William permalink

    That sounds like it was a great talk to hear! I wonder how much it has to do with our brains tendency to forget (or never really assimilate) new information that conflicts with its ingrained perception. It’s actually pretty scary to think that we could wipe out all life on earth…luckily some extremophiles would survive and repopulate. But imagine what kind of bizarre evolution would occur with all our waste and pollution integrated. It would put the Burgess Shale bed to shame!

    I know it’s not all gloom and that (hopefully most) people are amazing with their intelligence and compassion. That we can do the right thing, just because it’s the right thing, not because of materialistic or religious onus. It just sucks that it can take countless decades of work and sacrifice to create something that seemingly instantly is turned against us. I’d like to think that has less to do with our mental capacity (because if it does, we’re screwed) and more to do with dysfunctional societies. Despite how it may seem, I spend most of my time focusing how I can make other people’s lives better, even if it’s just little things sometimes.

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