May 8, 2009 | 3
NASA's deep space exploration programs could run out of gas in about a decade, and without any Star Trek–inspired dilithium crystals in sight, the U.S. Department of Energy Thursday announced it will start making plutonium 238 (238pu) again for NASA's missions, the Associated Press reports.
Deep space probes traveling beyond Jupiter are too far from the sun to use solar power, which means they rely on 238pu, which as a half-life-87.7 years (pdf), for power. The Energy Department shut down production of the radioactive isotope (a by-product of making nuclear weapons) in the 1980s, but has had a change of heart after the National Research Council (NRC) issued a report earlier this week explaining the 238pu's crucial role in continuing NASA's deep-space exploration missions. NASA has since the early 1990s been getting its 238pu from Russia, but that well is about to run dry because the Russians have also stopped making it. By law, only the Energy Department can make plutonium in the U.S., the Associated Press reports.
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