From Science Daily:

The first U.S. production in nearly 30 years of a specialized fuel to power future deep space missions has been completed by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee.

The production of 50 grams of plutonium-238 -roughly the mass of a golf ball — marks the first demonstration in the United States since the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina ceased production in the late 1980s.

Radioisotope power systems convert heat from the natural radioactive decay of the isotope plutonium-238 into electricity. These systems have been used to power the exploration of the solar system and beyond, from the Viking missions on Mars, to the Voyager spacecraft entering interplanetary space, and most recently powering the Curiosity Mars Rover and the New Horizons spacecraft sailing past Pluto.

“This significant achievement by our team mates at DOE signals a new renaissance in the exploration of our solar system,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Radioisotope power systems are a key tool to power the next generation of planetary orbiters, landers and rovers in our quest to unravel the mysteries of the universe.”

The success of the engineers and technicians at ORNL comes two years after the project formally started with NASA funding, building on many years of research and testing. This demonstration of the key steps in fuel production will ensure that this vital space power technology will be available to provide electricity and heat for ambitious exploration missions of…

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