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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

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)

Next Story

Partial Shutdown of US Delays Space Missions, But NASA Not Grounded

Other active space missions includes NASA probes OSIRIS-REx and New Horizons spacecraft that continue to gather data in Earth orbit and the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and beyond, the report said

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People rally to call for an end to the partial government shutdown in Detroit, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. VOA

The partial shutdown of the US federal government has had a serious impact on the country’s space agency NASA and development work on most future space missions has been slowed or suspended.

However, NASA has not been totally grounded by the partial government shutdown that began on December 22, after last-minute negotiations in Congress failed to end a budget standoff.

Over 95 per cent of the space agency’s employees have been furloughed. As a result, various research projects, including the Hubble Space Telescope has been put on hold, the Space.com reported on Wednesday.

Hubble suffered a mechanical problem that only furloughed NASA employees could repair.

Many workers also gathered outside the Johnson Space Center in Houston to protest the shutdown and its deleterious effects on their lives and the nation’s space programmes.

The Telescope facilities that have so far remained open during the shutdown will soon run out of money and cease operations.

This includes the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), a federally funded organization that operates the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), the Green Bank Telescope and the Very Large Array (VLA), the report noted.

The partial shutdown become the longest on record after January 12, overtaking the previous record of the 21-day impasse in 1995-96 under then President Bill Clinton.

NASA, tissue
US shutdown delays space missions but NASA not grounded: Report,

President Donald Trump and the Congress have been at loggerheads over his demand to include in the budget $5.7 billion funding for building a border wall along the Mexico border. Democratic leaders have rejected his call.

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), also called the “flying telescope” has also ceased operations since the shutdown.

The telescope, which is mounted to the fuselage of a Boeing 747 aircraft, has not flown since the shutdown began, the report said.

However, despite the shutdown some “excepted” employees remained at work, assisting astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and other space missions, the report said.

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Last week, astronauts aboard the ISS conducted a range of scientific experiments and public-outreach work. They engaged in an orbital Q&A with school kids and answered a variety of questions, from the nature of the research performed aboard the ISS to the type of training astronauts receive to whether your ears pop in space.

On January 13, a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule departed the orbiting lab for Earth, eventually splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. The robotic Dragon brought down important scientific research and hardware for examination here on terra firma.

Other active space missions includes NASA probes OSIRIS-REx and New Horizons spacecraft that continue to gather data in Earth orbit and the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and beyond, the report said.  (IANS)