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back to article Will Mars rover Curiosity be the last of its nuclear kind?

When the Mars rover Curiosity takes off tomorrow, it'll be packing a plutonium battery to power its myriad scientific instruments, but it could be one of the last to do so if NASA's next budget doesn't get approved. The space agency and the US Department of Energy are swiftly running out of plutonium-238, a radioactive isotope …

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Coffee/keyboard

Back when going into space was a noble endeavour, America was happy to spend lots of dosh on it."

Yea, but see how they wasted it! It's basically a private holiday industry for the more responsible Top Gun graduates.

There's little point in sending people into space at this point: there's almost nothing they can do there in situ that nowadays cannot be done by much cheaper robots far more efficiently [no support for air, food, waste needed, no careful jiggering of temperature, no exercise to compensate for boneloss in microgravity, no entertainment to keep stress at bay, no need for sleeping nor staying awake]. And when they get sent up there's just the afterthought of what to do --- experiments literally suggested by children ["spider web at zero grav"].

Yes, humans have been able to repair things that would have been completely lost otherwise --- to the benefit of saving themselves [Apollo 13], but that's begging the question why risk their lives [now] in the first place. Yes, the glamour is lost (just like an Warthog or Apache pilot despises the drone jockeys).

The entire object of space research is now space engineering: building, maintaining and supplying space stations for their own sake. Instead of actual exploration at a fraction of the cost. There's all the good reasons to wait with that sort of stuff until you know what you're going to do there actually ("mine oxygen, rare earths, diamonds and/or pixie dust").

Exactly like the just-ended "mars mission simulation" in Russia -- what's the point? The trip is not for another generation (30y is often the target), so whatever's learned will have to be relearned.

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Happy

Obviously the Martian Space Command-

Think otherwise, or you wouldn't be here...

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Ru
Meh

That's okay

The Chinese know what they're doing, and maybe even the Russians will sort themselves out one day. I'm sure they'll let us tag along on their future spaceflights and deep space probes.

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Mushroom

No problem.

Next year they can buy it from Iran.

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Somewhere along the way

I believe the RTG planned for this rover got reduced in size. and consequently power output, resulting in some of the planned scientific instrument packages losing capabilities or being dropped completely. That was due to not being able to find enough plutonium to run the original RTG.

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Anonymous Coward

Choice of spin

Roll the dice, here's what you get:

Lewis Page article: Panicking anti-nuclear Luddites force Pu production shutdown!

Objective article: A description of the pork-chasing and general short-termism of US politicians.

It's good to see more of the latter than the former for a change.

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HMB

If the probes were more energy efficient surely they could use wind power to generate all the electricity they needed? You know, like on earth.

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Facepalm

Wind turbines are quite big

And it would be very expensive to fly someone out to Mars to install one.

Oh wait, you were serious? Well, I'm sure you can point out a wind-powered car with a full science suite and frickin' lasers - we'll base it on that.

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Boffin

The wind on Mars is has no practical use as the atmosphere is so thin.

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Boffin

er... not quite

"Only during dust storms on Mars is there enough wind energy to operate a wind turbine," said Michael Flynn, another NASA Ames scientist. On Earth about 10 meters (33 feet) per second wind speed is needed to make electricity with wind turbines; on Mars about 30 meters (98 feet) is needed because of the extremely thin air, according to Bubenheim.

ref: http://www.spacedaily.com/news/mars-base-01e.html

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Silver badge

US govt is a joke

When they are so polarised along party lines and so evenly matched that no decisions are possible whether 10m for NASA or several trillion for debt reduction.

It's time to say congress isn't working, dissolve it, hold new elections and prevent any incumbent from standing again for 5 years.

They have failed to lead the country when it needs it most.

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The default Republican view on science seems to be

'I find your lack of faith disturbing.'

They're probably outraged at millions of dollars being spent on doing 'research', finding 'facts' and looking for 'evidence' when everything anyone needs to know is in their bumper-sized book of Jesus and his crazy friends.

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"It's time to say congress isn't working, dissolve it, hold new elections and prevent any incumbent from standing again for 5 years."

Time for *who* to say?

On election day you and everyone else get the chance to do exactly that. Congress may not be working, but your system of government is working fine. The problem is that the electorate keep returning total pricks to high office. Chances are, that's what they'd do under your plan, too.

Perhaps you should stop blaming an anonymous "system" (which is an easy target) and start blaming your fellow Americans. (For my part, let me say that most of my fellow Brits are idiots and they've got the government they deserve. Ha ha ha! Sadly, *I've* got the government they deserve, too. Bummer!)

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FAIL

US Govt is a joke...

@Gordon 10 - "It's time to say congress isn't working, dissolve it, hold new elections and prevent any incumbent from standing again for 5 years."

Five years isn't long enough... The incumbents should be banned from ever holding public office again, since they've proven to world and dog that they don't care about their constituents, only their corporate masters and overlords, and the brib.... er... campaign contributions they provide for good little politicians..

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Mushroom

I'm rapidly coming to the opinion that the system has to change drastically... No more running for election, since we get the greediest of the greedy and frequently the least qualified running for office. I remember reading in a SciFi book years ago, possibly by Robert Heinlein, of a process for choosing a chief executive, whereby anybody who wanted to could put their name in to be considered for the office. The kicker was that anybody who actually applied was immediately disqualified, and a computer chose the leader by lot from among the remaining populace who met the minimum requirements. The minimum requirements were pretty much you had to be alive and of reasonable intelligence. I don't think we could get anyone worse than we've seen lately, like the last fifty years.

Nuclear blast because we're going to obliterate the current system of government.

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Trollface

Greener options....

What NASA ought to do is get support from Greenpeace....

" For shots to the Moon and orbital flights we will use tidal energy. Everone knows that the Moon provides huge amounts of tidal energy.

Flights further afield, and interstellar shots need to travel very fast. So for these we will use windmills...."

What's the problem? With arguments like these the Global Warmists have extracted billions of taxpayer funds - far more than a Mars shot costs...

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My guess?

NASA prefer to make things that actually work.

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Boffin

US still has a fair number of working nuclear reactors.

I'll take a wild stab that *some* of them could be loaded with the odd fuel element with Neptunium 237, the elements removed and returned to a central processing site.for low volume re-processing to get the Pu240.

Security *should* be manageable and the extraction process is understood. It's hard to believe that given the scale of US gov nuclear research and production facilities there are *no* unused processing cells where the necessary hardware and chemistry could not be set up with the necessary containment and security.

The question is how *much* Pu240 does the US gov need. These are thermocouple generators (*possibly* moving to Stirling cycle systems), not reactors.

Just a thought.

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Silver badge

What they want for the generators ..

is Pu 238 which is not fissile but generates a high decay heat

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Mushroom

Producing odd radioisotopes like Pu-238 or some of the ones used in medical treatments etc. requires specific amounts and energy levels of neutron flux, not something regular power reactors can produce. These isotopes are typically made in research reactors or specialist reactors dedicated to the task. A lot of the reactors in the West doing this sort of work have been shut down over the decades as they age or their operating regulations are tightened up underneath them. There's a shortage of medical isotope production on the horizon with only a couple of reactors left on-line in the West to make them, especially the short-lived stuff that needs continuous production to keep the demand satisfied. One of these reactors could be repurposed to make more Pu-238 but it couldn't make medical isotopes at the same time.

The Soviets^Russians have several isotope production reactors on-stream -- see the kerfuffle about the journalist poisoned by radioactive polonium a few years back -- but they don't have the sort of tight regs the West's production facilities labour under or indeed the requirement to make a profit.

The US does have some Pu-238 on hand but it is committed to black-budget DoD operations, for powering stealthy spy satellites that don't need a big array of solar panels to operate as well as deep-sea submarine listening stations to track shipping and sub movements around the world. This is the real reason the Russians stopped supplying the US with Pu-238 as despite promises the material they provided wouldn't be used for military purposes the US simply reallocated their "civilian" stockpile of Pu-238 to their military projects since Pu-238 like most other energy materials is fungible.

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$5m in 2013?

That's some funny predicting you've got going there. Third it 2010-2011, third it 2011-2012, then... halve it 2012-2013?

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MrT
Bronze badge

It's okay...

...because in one reliable historical document that I saw recently, we only have to wait until 2015 for Mr Fusion units to appear.

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Anonymous Coward

Or they could use

Rossi's nickel-hydrogen "fuel cell" to make both heat AND electrical power.

Plutonium schluonium, I want NASA's next probe powered by cold fusion a la "2010".

AC/DC 6EQUJ5 and Rossi had better be nominated for the 2012 Chemistry Nobel... !

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"Rossi had better be nominated for the 2012 Chemistry Nobel... !"

Ha, ha, ha ......

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Anonymous Coward

Funny...

They have plenty of millions for their own earmark slush funds.

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