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The US used nuclear waste to power their Voyager probes, launched in the 1970s; the Cassini-Huygens probe, launched in 1997; and just recently the Mars Curiosity rover.
The idea is that nuclear waste gives of heat for many years, and that heat can be used to keep a craft warm in the depths of space, so that it doesn’t freeze up, and also to produce electricity to power on-board systems.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is very interested in this technology as a means to power its long-range spacecraft. NASA generally uses plutonium-238, however the ESA are looking for an alternative, as plutonium-238 is only available from the US or from Russia.
The British Sellafield nuclear facility in Cumbria reprocesses plutonium, uranium, and other fissionable materials from nuclear waste, and is currently working to produce americium-241 from the countries spent nuclear fuel, a nuclear isotope which the ESA believes will work as a suitable alternative.
Each nuclear battery would only need about 5kg of americium-241, which means that with current stockpiles the British nuclear industry could supply the ESA with all of its needs for the foreseeable future.
The batteries could also be used for long-term undersea probes, and in buoys designed to monitor ocean conditions.
By. James Burgess of Oilprice.com
James Burgess studied Business Management at the University of Nottingham. He has worked in property development, chartered surveying, marketing, law, and accounts. He has also…