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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

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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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NASA Chooses Landing Site For Mars 2020 Rover

The Rover mission is scheduled to launch in July 2020 as NASA's next step in exploration of the Red Planet

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NASA selects landing site for Mars 2020 Rover. Flcikr

NASA has chosen Jezero Crater delta, where the sediments contain clays and carbonates, as the landing site for its upcoming Mars 2020 Rover mission, the US space agency said.

Jezero Crater, 45 kilometres in size, is located on the western edge of Isidis Planitia — a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator.

Its ancient lake-delta system offers many promising sampling targets of at least five different kinds of rock, including clays and carbonates that have high potential to preserve signatures of past life.

“The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with land forms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years, that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement on Monday.

“Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbour life,” he added.

The crater, once home to an ancient river delta, could have collected and preserved ancient organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life from the water and sediments that flowed into the crater billions of years ago.

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The Rover mission is scheduled to launch in July 2020 as NASA’s next step in exploration of the Red Planet. Flickr

In addition, the site contains numerous boulders and rocks to the east, cliffs to the west, and depressions filled with aeolian bedforms (wind-derived ripples in sand that could trap a rover) in several locations.

Selecting a landing site this early allows the Rover drivers and science operations team to optimise their plans for exploring Jezero Crater once the Rover is safely on the ground.

The Rover mission is scheduled to launch in July 2020 as NASA’s next step in exploration of the Red Planet.

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It will not only seek signs of ancient habitable conditions and past microbial life but will also collect rock and soil samples and store them in a cache on the planet’s surface.

Earlier in November, ExoMars rover — the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russian Roscosmos’ joint venture to the Red Planet that will set out in 2020 — also chose a landing site on Mars’ equator called Oxia Planum, which had in the prehistoric era housed a massive pool of water. (IANS)