Congress, Lobbying

Astronomers exercise the nuclear option

While officials from dozens of nations met in Washington last week for a summit on nuclear security, astronomers were also getting riled up about nuclear issues, albeit of a very different kind. The American Astronomical Society (AAS) sent out an “Action Alert” to its members last Monday, asking them to contract Congress about restarting production of plutonium-238. This isotope of plutonium is used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) in deep-space missions, but the domestic supply of the isotope has been exhausted and access to Russian supplies of Pu-238 has become problematic. The 2011 budget proposals include $15 million each for NASA and the Department of Energy to restart Pu-238 production in the US; however, a similar effort last year in DoE was not funded by Congress.

The action alert includes a sample letter members can use to send to their members of Congress asking them to support the requested funding. The letter discusses the importance of Pu-238 for certain space missions, and that the isotope is not used for weapons. It concludes: “The future of American space exploration is at stake!”

24 comments to Astronomers exercise the nuclear option

  • Matt Wiser

    I can hear the anti-nuclear crowd already screaming bloody murder. Remember the protests when Galileo, Ulysses, and Cassini were launched? With this crowd, there’s no possiblity of reason or compromise. If it’s nuclear anything don’t launch,period, is their POV. Glad they’re not in any kind of elected or appointed office.

  • mike shupp

    Is planetary astronomy REALLY a pressing national need? I don’t see it. If it’s so darned important to shave waste and mismanagement from space program budgets, shouldn’t astronomers share the mixed pains and joys of those of us who’d like bigger manned space budgets? After all, if human beings are never going to live out there among the outer planets, is the need to gain scientific data from them all that important? Or is it a luxury that can be left for another century?

  • I suppose this would be a good time to mention the Facebook group Go Nuclear or Go Home, for fans of nuclear power and propulsion in space.

  • CharlesTheSpaceGuy

    Sigh. In a more rational time this would not even come up, we would fund the production so that future missions to Jupiter, Uranus, etc could count on RTGs, etc.

    Instead, we already can visualize people pitting human space vs planetary exploration. Never mind the tremendous fountains of money available for (previously rejected) projects such as high speed rail, broadband to reach isolated ski resorts, etc. As a 28 year veteran of the Air Force, we could easily cut missile defense, and if so a portion of that could go to fund plutonium production. Perhaps mike shupp is writing to co-op people who would seriously advocate his position?

    In this tight fiscal environment (unless you are a guy building a bridge) there is little money for plutonium. I hope we get it so that we will can plan a new mission to Saturn one day. And we could all look forward to the inevitable flood of “explore Uranus” jokes!

  • Doug Lassiter

    “shouldn’t astronomers share the mixed pains and joys of those of us who’d like bigger manned space budgets?”

    You evidently haven’t been exposed to the vast number of space science missions that engineers and scientists have devoted substantial fractions of their careers to, only to have them canceled because of lack of funding. What makes you think the pain and joy isn’t being shared? That’s a really odd comment.

    The need to understand the planets is more than about just understanding how we would live on them. Just as the need to understand particle physics is about more than what happens when they go through you. The study of other planets informs our understanding of our own atmosphere. Want a greenhouse effect? Get a closeup look at Venus or Titan. Our understanding of how the solar system was formed and evolved has ramifications for our future. Yes, there are big rocks that sometimes hit us and do bad things. The cratering record in the solar system tells us how that happened.

    Frankly, many would say that human space flight, perhaps to colonize other planets, is a luxury that should be left to another century. My feeling is that neither that nor planetary astronomy are luxuries, but are both compelling examples of what it means to explore. Exploration is a national need that human space flight doesn’t own.

    New Horizons, on it’s way to Pluto, needed such Pu-238 and cost a fraction of what it would take to put one person on the Moon for a few days. And what would that one person do there in a few days that would compare to what New Horizons is doing?

    Actually, the pain inflicted on human space flight in the U.S. is largely due to bad management and poor costing on scales that really don’t compare to what we’ve seen in NASA planetary astronomy. So it’s nice that you’re in the mood to share, but I suspect planetary astronomers will politely decline.

  • amightywind

    The eco-apocalyptic left is totally insane in the taboo they have tried to create around producing legitimate materials, even under the auspices of the IAEA.. Pu-238 RTGs are an essential part of outer solar system exploration. Obtaining it through the Russians is insane. For all we know we know they are fencing for Kim Jong Il. It is time to restart one of the Department of Energy sites and start manufacturing it again.

  • Ferris Valyn


    Sorry, that was just too tempting

  • Robert G. Oler

    Well this should be exciting…

    Stephen and I were going on about the future of NASA…SM is a smart guy.

    Robert G. Oler

  • Robert G. Oler

    Ferris Valyn wrote @ April 21st, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    thank you very much

    Robert G. Oler

  • Robert, thanks for the link to the Story Musgrave article.

    Story is a favorite in this house just because he’s so weird. :-)

    I have to disagree with his statement that we could have done Voyager class satellites instead of ISS. Yes, we could have chosen to do that, but given x dollars we could have chosen to slice that any number of ways.

    The problem, as always, is coming up with something simple in concept that will convince Congress to approve. Congress would never approve 300 Voyager satellites. It wouldn’t create jobs for their districts.

    Right now I’m reading a golden oldie, Challenger: A Major Malfunction by Malcolm McConnell. In the chapter I’m currently reading, he describes how the Shuttle design came to be, and how the major contractors were selected by the Nixon Administration. It boiled down to which contractors were in Sun Belt states that Nixon wanted to carry in 1972 and how much they gave secretly to the Committee to Re-Elect the President.

    I really think people don’t have an appreciation for just how incestuous is the space-industrial complex. Charlie Bolden recently described a process he envisions where NASA decides it wants to perform a particularly mission, then puts it out to bid to the various commercial contractors. Want to go to ISS? Maybe SpaceX wins one, Bigelow wins another, maybe even the Russians.

    Will that put an end to the incestuous relationships? Probably not completely, but at least it will be a step in the right direction. More transparency in the selection process would certainly help.

    In any case, I don’t think the ISS is a waste. I think Obama wants to see it be given an opportunity to do what was originally intended — create a full-time scientific laboratory that doubles as a long-term off-world habitat which can be used to simulate long-duration flights and a possible lunar colony.

  • stargazer

    If we can get back to the subject of this thread for just a moment, radioactive isotopes to power interplanetary missions, clearly that is an important issue and one needing our support. I was wondering whether some of the weapons grade plutonium/uranium that we are going to have a surplus of with the recent signing of the US/Russian agreement and the transfer of much of this material to the US from other nations could be used for this purpose?

  • Doug Lassiter

    “I was wondering whether some of the weapons grade plutonium/uranium that we are going to have a surplus of with the recent signing of the US/Russian agreement and the transfer of much of this material to the US from other nations could be used for this purpose?”

    It would not be in the interest of anyone to try to build spacecraft with weapons grade plutonium. Can you imagine the costs associated with security for the development and launch process? Whew!

    You need something non-fissile, with a half-life short enough that it will provide substantial heat, and long enough that it will last the mission duration. You don’t get much heat out of Pu-239, which is the weapons grade stuff, because the half life is so long — tens of thousands of years. Well, I guess you could get some heat out if you if you hit it with neutrons. Pu-238 is half done in 90 years all by itself.

    I don’t think mass conversion of Pu-239 into Pu-238 is an option. Well, ahem, you could do some of that in a bomb …

  • stargazer

    I appreciate your view on the PR aspect, but I understand that weapons grade fuels have been mixed with lower grade fuel to power some commercial reactors. Something constructive will have to be done with the weapons grade material, the only question is what. Your point that the heat released by plutonium or weapons grade uranium would not be sufficient and that we would need an isotope with a short half life was on-point and I appreciate your information.

  • Doug Lassiter

    “weapons grade fuels have been mixed with lower grade fuel to power some commercial reactors”

    That’s correct, but understand that there is a fission reaction going on in commercial reactors. That’s what “reactor” means. You have neutrons instigating a fusion reaction that produces heat. That isn’t how an RTG works. It isn’t a “reactor”. An RTG works entirely using the heat released by radioactive decay to generate electricity. The planetary astronomy community is asking for RTG isotopic material.

    Now, that being said, is would be quite wonderful to get a space qualified reactor that could be used for all manner of amazing things. Power, propulsion, etc. etc. That’s been the dream of space enthusiasts for generations. The planetary astronomy community would LOVE to be asking for fission fuel, but someone has to come up with a reactor first.

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  • G Clark

    IIRC, the Russians came up with those quite some time ago (think RorSats).

    We even borrowed a couple in the 90’s (sent them back when the contract ended). Several missions were proposed using reactors – remember the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter concept?

  • Doug Lassiter

    Exactly. Though those RORSAT reactors (eventually Topaz, I think) would never have been considered space qualified by our standards. Those used U-235, BTW.

    NASA had the Prometheus concept study on such nuclear options for a while, but I believe the huge amount of waste heat and penetrating radiation from the reactors was not considered to be particularly science-friendly. The huge amounts of power they produced somewhat offset those concerns, though. JIMO would have kept the reactor at arms length from the spacecraft. About 20 meters away, in fact, on a loooong truss lined with thermal radiator panels to dump the waste heat! Prometheus was, of course, canceled as a result of the belt-tightening that Constellation imposed, as that architecture metamorphosed into one in which new “game changing” technologies were not considered high value as they are now.

    BTW, I see that I referred to a “fusion” reaction once in my last post. Wishful thinking! I meant “fission”, of course.

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