Over a half-century of crap in space

Almost 20,000 pieces of space debris are currently orbiting the Earth. This visualisation, created by Dr Stuart Grey, lecturer at University College London and part of the Space Geodesy and Navigation Laboratory, shows how the amount of space debris increased from 1957 to 2015, using data on the precise location of each piece of junk.

We are a truly slovenly species.

Milestone: Oak Ridge National Lab produces plutonium-238

Plutonium-238 oxide pellet glowing from its own heat

With the production of 50 grams of plutonium-238, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have restored a U.S. capability dormant for nearly 30 years and set the course to provide power for NASA and other missions.

Plutonium-238 produces heat as it decays and can be used in systems that power spacecraft instruments. The new sample, which is in the same oxide powder form used to manufacture heat sources for power systems, represents the first end-to-end demonstration of a plutonium-238 production capability in the United States since the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina ceased production of the material in the late 1980s…

❝“Once we automate and scale up the process, the nation will have a long-range capability to produce radioisotope power systems such as those used by NASA for deep space exploration,” said Bob Wham, who leads the project…

There are currently only 35 kilograms, or about 77 pounds, of plutonium-238 set aside for NASA missions, and only about half of this supply meets power specifications. This is only sufficient to power two to three proposed NASA missions through the middle of the 2020s. Fortunately, the additional material that will be produced at ORNL can be blended with the existing portion that doesn’t meet specifications to extend the usable inventory…

The next NASA mission planning to use a radioisotope thermoelectric generator is the Mars 2020 rover, due to be launched in July 2020. The mission seeks signs of life on Mars and will test technology for human exploration and gather samples of rocks and soil that could be returned to Earth.

RTFA for details of the processes involved in reviving this project.

BTW – NASA has been buying this from Russia for the past 22 years. Their own stash is diminishing. They’ve stopped selling it.