At the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) symposium in March, however, Steven Howe of CSNR proposed what could be a simpler and cheaper way to make it. The trick is to use a mechanical feed line, a coiled pipe surrounding the reactor core. Small capsules containing just a few grams of neptunium-237 are pushed continuously along this pipe, each one spending just days in the reactor. As they pop out the other end, the plutonium-238 is extracted and the remaining neptunium-237 is sent through the line again. About 0.01 per cent of the neptunium is converted on each pass, so this cycle would need to be repeated thousands of times to create the kilos of material required by NASA.
This technique brings some significant advantages, including shorter irradiation times causing far fewer fission products to be generated. This simplifies the subsequent chemical separation steps and reduces the amount of radioactive waste. In addition, it can work in small reactors that are far cheaper to run than the powerful national lab facilities that are required for the batch processing of old. Howe even envisions operating along commercial lines, so NASA and the DoE would just purchase the final product, rather than footing the bill for the entire production process.
The CSNR team working on this concept is already funded by a $100,000 NIAC grant and has submitted a proposal to build a prototype feed line and to demonstrate that they can mechanically push the capsules through it, as well as perform the subsequent separation steps. Howe believes they can have their process up and running in just three years, at a cost of about $50 million – half the proposed cost of restarting conventional production – and could create about 1.5 kilograms of plutonium-238 each year.
Though the team still has to determine the optimum irradiation time, operating the process continuously instead of converting several kilograms in batches twice a year should help keep costs and the facility size down. And if they charge $6 million per kilogram – less than the latest Russian asking price – this process would be cost-effective for private industry, Howe says. “Like commercial space travel, we’re doing commercialised plutonium production,” he says.
Whether or not Howe’s technique saves money, or even makes it, breathing fresh life into plutonium production is not popular with everyone. Plutonium-238 is highly toxic, and an accident during or after launch could release it into the atmosphere. In 1964, for example, a US navy navigation satellite re-entered the atmosphere and broke up, dispersing 1 kilogram of plutonium-238 around the planet, roughly double the amount released into the atmosphere by weapons testing. Though the plutonium’s containers have been redesigned to survive re-entry intact, the Cassini probe’s near-Earth fly-by in 2006 triggered widespread public protests. Restarting plutonium production is “a very frightening possibility”, says Bruce Gagnon of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space based in Brunswick, Maine. “It obviously indicates that the nuclear industry views space as a new market,” he says. “It’s like playing Russian roulette.” Gagnon is also worried by the prospects of a commercialised production line. “When you introduce the profit incentive, you start cutting corners,” he says.
Then there are concerns over proliferation and political capital. While plutonium-238 cannot be used to make a nuclear weapon, it is a different story with neptunium-237. This is weapons-grade material: bombarded by fast neutrons, it is capable of sustaining a chain reaction without unstable heat decay. Edwin Lyman at the Union of Concerned Scientists based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, believes that given these safety and security issues, non-nuclear power generation systems should be a priority for space applications. “Alternatives need to be explored fully,” he says. “If the US proceeds with the restart, it will be more difficult for us to dissuade other countries from doing the same, should they decide they need to produce their own plutonium-238 supply.”
Can sunlight help fill the gap? The intensity of light drops with distance from the sun, following an inverse square law, so sending solar-powered spacecraft to the outer planets looks like a non-starter. In Pluto’s orbit, for example, it would take a solar array of 2000 square metres to generate the same amount of power as a 1-square-metre array in Earth’s orbit. Nevertheless, in August 2011, NASA launched Juno, the first mission to Jupiter using solar energy instead of plutonium. Juno relies on three 10-metre-long solar panels to gather the power it needs to operate. And according to a 2007 NASA report, solar-powered missions beyond Jupiter are not out of the question.
What’s needed, says James Fincannon of NASA’s Glenn Research Center, are new solar cells that can cope with the extreme conditions in the outer solar system. Great strides are being made in developing lightweight, high-efficiency solar cells, he says. If the cost and mass of these arrays can be reduced further, and if a spacecraft’s power needs can be reduced to less than 300 watts – about half that of the Galileo probe – Fincannon suggests that a craft powered by a 250-square-metre solar array could operate as far away as Uranus. Gagnon agrees. “For years we’ve said that solar would work even in deep space,” he says.
After 36 years, Voyager 1 goes interstellar
The tireless Voyager I spacecraft, launched in the disco era and now more than 11 billion miles from Earth, has become the first man-made object to enter interstellar space, scientists said Thursday. Interstellar space, scientists now know with certainty, is dense with particles, and the place is literally hissing. Or maybe you could say it’s whistling in the dark.
“It’s almost a pure tone. Like middle C. But slightly varying, like your piano is not quite tuned right,” said Donald Gurnett, a University of Iowa physicist who has been working on the Voyager mission most of his adult life.
Gurnett is the lead author of a paper published Thursday in the journal Science that provides what seems to be the final, incontrovertible evidence that NASA’s Voyager I has crossed into a realm where no spacecraft has gone before.
Scientists have long thought that there would be a boundary out there, somewhere, where the million-mile-per-hour “solar wind” of particles would give way abruptly to cooler, denser interstellar space, permeated by charged particles from around the galaxy.
That boundary, called the heliopause, turns out to be 11.3 billion miles from the sun, according to Voyager’s instruments and Gurnett’s calculations.
Beyond the boundary, space is — perhaps counterintuitively — much denser with particles. There are 80,000 particles per cubic meter in the region where Voyager I is now, Gurnett said.
The sun’s hot ejecta — a plasma of charged particles — forms a vast bubble, known as the heliosphere. In the outer regions of the heliosphere, the particles are relatively few and far between, with just 1,000 particles per square meter in some regions, Gurnett said. But the heliosphere has an edge. Voyager I’s epochal crossing of the boundary, into the cooler, denser plasma, took place on Aug. 25, 2012, according to the new report.
This confirms earlier findings, published in three papers in Science in June, that Voyager I on that date in August 2012 had experienced a sudden drop in solar radiation and a spike in cosmic particles coming from all around the galaxy.
But the earlier data from the spacecraft had been somewhat ambiguous. The spacecraft continued to pick up magnetic signals that suggested it was still within the sun’s magnetic field. Ed Stone, the chief scientist for Voyager, suggested that Voyager I was flying through a transitional zone.
Now, however, scientists have a new set of measurements thanks in large part to a solar flare. On March 17, 2012, the sun ejected a huge mass of particles, and when those solar particles arrived at Voyager more than a year later, on April 9, they triggered oscillations in the charged particles of matter — the plasma — surrounding the spacecraft.
From the frequency of those oscillations — essentially the sound of space itself — the scientists could interpret the density of the plasma. That density, much higher than anything registered before in the outer solar system, offered compelling evidence that Voyager I had, in fact, entered the interstellar zone.
“For the first time we’ve actually measured the density of the plasma,” Stone said. He said he’s convinced by the new data that his spacecraft has fully penetrated interstellar space.
“It’s great. This is exploration. This is wonderful,” said Stone, who has overseen the Voyager project since the early 1970s.
The two Voyager spacecraft were launched in 1977. Voyager I flew by Jupiter and Saturn, the gravity of which helped slingshot the spacecraft toward the outer reaches of the solar system. Voyager I is now traveling at 38,000 miles per hour relative to the sun.
Voyager II flew near Jupiter and Saturn and then went on to pass by Uranus and Neptune. It is not quite as far from the sun as its sister spacecraft.
Although Voyager I is now in interstellar space, it hasn’t technically left the solar system. That’s because of the Oort cloud — a region of comets in orbit around the sun.
“We’ll get to the inner edge of the Oort cloud in about 300 years,” Stone said. “Of course the spacecraft will not still be transmitting then.”
The spacecraft draws power from the radioactive decay of Plutonium 238, and Stone thinks the dwindling power supply will force engineers to start turning off instruments in 2020. Voyager I probably will go dark by 2025.
Stone said the spacecraft will pass through the far side of the Oort cloud in about 30,000 years.