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NASA Running out of Fuel Required for Deep Space Missions : What will be the future of Exploration Missions?

The supply of the critical resource could be exhausted within the next decade, putting in jeopardy NASA's future missions that would require this fuel.

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What will happen to exploration missions if NASA runs out of fuel? Wikimedia
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Washington, October 12, 2017 : The shortage of plutonium threatens NASA’s future mission to explore deep space, the US government has warned.

The break in production of plutonium 238 (Pu-238) between 1988 and 2015 could result in a bottleneck situation, where there is not enough of this scarce resource to power spacecraft during long-duration missions, Newsweek.com reported this week citing a government report.

NASA has long used radioisotope power systems (RPS) to generate reliable electrical power and heat energy for long-duration space missions, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said.

But given NASA’s current plans for solar system exploration, the supply of this critical resource could be exhausted within the next decade, putting in jeopardy its future missions that would require this fuel, it warned.

RPS can operate where solar panels or batteries would be ineffective or impossible to use, such as in deep space or in shadowed craters, by converting heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) into electricity.

Missions such as Mars Curiousity rover and the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft use radioisotope thermoelectric generators as power source.

The production problems of Pu-238 and subsequent risks to NASA have been known for several years.

The Department of Energy (DOE) and its predecessor agencies have been providing Pu-238 and fabricating RPS for NASA and other federal agencies for more than five decades decades

ALSO READ NASA’S Mars Odyssey Spacecraft Captures First Images of the Martian Moon Phobos after 16 years

DOE currently maintains about 35 kgs of Pu-238 isotope designated for NASA missions, about half of which currently meets the power specifications for spaceflight.

However, given NASA’s current plans for solar system exploration, this supply could be exhausted within the next 10 years.

Specifically, NASA plans to use about 3.5 kg of Pu-238 isotope for one RPS to power the Mars 2020 mission, the Government Accountability Office report said.

NASA may also use an additional 10.5 kg of Pu-238 isotope for its New Frontiers #4
mission if three RPS are used.

If DOE’s existing Pu-238 supply is used for these two missions, NASA would be forced to eliminate or delay future missions requiring RPS until DOE produces or acquires more Pu-238, the report said. (IANS)

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Scientists spot massive ice deposits on Mars

Recent observations by MRO's ground-penetrating Shallow Radar instrument revealed a buried ice layer that covers more ground than the state of New Mexico.

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Scientists found layers of ice on the surface of Mars. Wikimedia Commons
  • Recently, scientists have found layers of ice on the Martian land.
  • Scientists think this ice might be a useful source of water for future humans.
  • The researchers had researched 8 locations on the surface of Mars.

Scientists have unearthed thick and massive deposits of ice in some regions on Mars.

The images taken by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) showed the three-dimensional structure of massive ice deposits on Mars.

The ice sheets extend from just below the surface to a depth of 100 meters or more and appear to contain distinct layers.

It extending downward from depths as shallow as 1 to 2 meters below the surface, which could preserve a record of Mars’ past climate, the researchers noted in the journal Science.

This ice which was found can help scientists understand the climate history of Mars. IANS
This ice which was found can help scientists understand the climate history of Mars. IANS

“We expect the vertical structure of Martian ice-rich deposits to preserve a record of ice deposition and past climate,” said Colin M. Dundas, from the US Geological Survey.

“They might even be a useful source of water for future human exploration of the red planet,” Dundas added.

The researchers investigated eight locations on Mars and found thick deposits cover broad regions of the Martian mid-latitudes with a smooth mantle.

However, erosion in these regions creates scarps that expose the internal structure of the mantle.

The scarps are actively retreating because of sublimation of the exposed water ice.

The layers of ice can be used as water source by future humans on Mars, VOA
The layers of ice can be used as water source by future humans on Mars, VOA

The ice deposits likely originated as snowfall during Mars’ high-obliquity periods and have now compacted into massive, fractured, and layered ice.

Previous researchers have revealed that the Red Planet harbours subsurface water ice.

Recent observations by MRO’s ground-penetrating Shallow Radar instrument revealed a buried ice layer that covers more ground than the state of New Mexico.

NASA’s Phoenix lander had also dug up some ice near the Martian north pole in 2008, however, it is not clear if that is part of the big sheet. IANS