August 26, 2015 at 7:07 am #1743
Earl’s previous regenerationSpectator
Apparently all this Pluto fever was good for one thing: reminding us that we have unfinished business in the outer solar system. [LINK]
The agency’s head of planetary sciences announced that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will study a flagship mission to Uranus and/or Neptune.
If approved, the spacecraft would be the next big mission following Mars2020 and Europa Clipper (now Europa Multiple Flyby Mission). Green says the proposed flagship mission’s cost should be less than $2 billion. Past flagship missions include Cassini, Galileo, and Voyager.
Argo, the last proposed mission to Neptune, was grounded because NASA didn’t have enough plutonium to power all of its spacecraft, according to one of its designers.
Candice Hansen of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory says there was a special launch window from 2015 to 2020 that would put Argo at Neptune in a decade thanks to gravity assists from Jupiter and Saturn. That timeline is now impossible to meet.
50 years? You’ve gotta be freakin’ kidding me. A robotic mission within our own solar system shouldn’t have to be a generational ship.
I’d love to see missions to both, but if I could only have one, I’d say: Uranus. Voyager was there at a time when there were no seasonal fireworks going on in the atmosphere; now we’ve actually seen storms – big ones – thanks to Hubble. So you heard me right: I demand a rematch with Uranus.August 26, 2015 at 4:23 pm #8115
Much as I would like to see Uranus (especially the rings around Uranus), I would much prefer to see the other heavenly bodies: Neptune and Triton.* Believe it or not, I’m more partial to Neptune and it’s satellites than Uranus. Why? Because, when I was in college, I took an Astronomy class and, during lab, I actually saw Neptune through the on-campus telescope (something like a 12″ reflector – currently they have a Meade 14″ LX200GPS telescope, which is much more powerful). Granted, what I saw was a tiny grayish-blue dot, it did make an impression on me. This was a good five years before Voyager and so, when the probe reached the 8th planet, I was able to appreciate the images from Voyager more than those pictures from Uranus. I have yet to see Uranus through a telescope (and let’s keep it that way, mmmkay?).
That was perhaps one of the weirdest paragraphs I’ve written (but only if you read it out loud).
*Say that sentence out loud without giggling. I dare you.August 26, 2015 at 6:46 pm #8116
By the way, you can blame the lack plutonium for deep space probes on the Russians. They backed out on a deal in 2009 to sell 22 pounds of the stuff. When I first heard about this, my initial reaction was to blame Putin (or Bush – it was too early to blame Obama on everything) but, according to one source, the real reason they backed out was they didn’t have any to sell. Of course, that won’t stop the conspiracy theorists from claiming that Russia is hording their supply for nefarious reasons (used as power supplies for secret space satellites or underwater probes). Since the going price for the stuff is on the order of $45K per ounce (the price the US paid them in 1993 or so), I’m backing the “Russia is unable to make Plutonium” theory because they would not back out on a deal to make a cool $1.5 million from plutonium sales.
There’s a good chance the next generation of space probes will use the new space launch systems to lift off from Earth. Those are huge rockets and it would be exciting to see them launch.January 9, 2019 at 9:15 am #24929
Is the end to the plutonium shortage in sight? [LINK]
It appears that the U.S.’s plutonium-238 shortage is coming an end. The radioisotope is crucial for fueling long-term deep space missions, but as of 2017, a shortage was on the horizon. But innovations from the Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) have automated its creation allowing for more than double the plutonium-238 pellets made per week.
ORNL has automated a crucial part of the 238Pu creation process—the creation of neptunium oxide-aluminum pellets. Neptunium is a radioactive metal element, and when these pellets are further irradiated, they create what’s known has neptunium-238, which rapidly decays into usable 238Pu.
“Automating part of the 238Pu production process is helping push annual production from 50 grams to 400 grams, moving closer to NASA’s goal of 1.5 kilograms per year by 2025,” says ORNL’s Bob Wham in a press statement. “The automation replaces a function our team did by hand and is expected to increase the output of pressed pellets from 80 to 275 per week.”
With that increased production, future projects similar to Cassini and the Mars 2020 Rover can be built knowing that they’ll have fuel sources that will last long past their launch date.
Let’s just pause for a moment and give thanks that we live in a world where someone whose job closely intersects with the production of radioactive material is named Bob Wham.
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