NASA fu­ture ‘in doubt’

Iran Daily - - Science & Technology -

The fu­ture of NASA may be in doubt af­ter a short­age of plu­to­nium, which is needed for deep space mis­sions, was un­cov­ered by US of­fi­cials.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s Govern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice (GAO) warned that space agency’s fu­ture may at risk as the US Depart­ment of En­ergy “faces chal­lenges meet­ing NASA’S ex­pected need” for a plu­to­nium iso­tope re­quired for mis­sions, ex­press.co.uk wrote.

The GAO re­vealed in its lat­est re­port around half of the US’S plu­to­nium stock­piles were al­ready in use and the fu­ture mis­sions Mars 2020 and New Fron­tiers Num­ber 4 could di­min­ish the re­main­der. With­out ac­cess to the Pu-238 ra­dioiso­tope, NASA “will be forced to elim­i­nate or de­lay fu­ture mis­sions” — in­clud­ing the space agency plans to send astro­nauts to Mars between 2030 and 2040.

Shelby S. Oak­ley, di­rec­tor of ac­qui­si­tion and sourc­ing man­age­ment at GAO, said: “If the En­ergy Depart­ment’s ex­ist­ing Pu-238 sup­ply is used for these two mis­sions, NASA would be forced to elim­i­nate or de­lay fu­ture mis­sions.”

The news comes as NASA sci­en­tists had hoped to send space­crafts to ex­plore hid­den oceans on moons of Jupiter and Saturn and travel fur­ther into deep space to un­cover the se­crets of the Uni­verse.

Alan Stern, the lead sci­en­tist on NASA’S the New Hori­zons mis­sion said: “All of these mis­sions would re­quire nu­clear power.”

Jes­sica Sun­shine, a sci­en­tist who de­vel­oped a comet-hop­per mis­sion for NASA, told Busi­ness In­sider that with­out plu­to­nium mis­sions like hers will also come into ques­tion.

She said: “It’s not a mat­ter of can you do it bet­ter, but can you do it at all.

“On a comet, op­er­at­ing at crazy dis­tances, you can’t land with so­lar pan­els the size of an Air­bus wing. A ra­dioac­tive power sup­ply is a to­tally en­abling thing.”

The US govern­ment stopped mak­ing Pu-238 in 1988 and while Rus­sia sold some to NASA in the 1990s and 2000s, this ended in 2009. As a re­sult, NASA only has about 77pounds (35kg) left, but be­cause Pu-238 de­cays only about half of is con­sid­ered fresh enough for space mis­sion.

This would not enough for an­other mis­sion like Cassini, which used more than 50pounds (23kg), to send a space­craft to or­bit Saturn. Between 2030 and 2040, NASA plans to send its first manned mis­sion to Mars.

The space agency is cur­rently in­ves­ti­gat­ing meth­ods to pro­tect Mars-bound astro­nauts from the harm­ful ra­di­a­tions rays of the Red Planet.

Dou­glas Ter­rier, NASA’S act­ing chief tech­nol­o­gist, said: “We’re look­ing at a range of things, from drug ther­a­pies, and those seem to be quite promis­ing, to more ex­treme things like an epi­ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion.”

GETTY NASA’S fu­ture is in doubt over a short­age of plu­to­nium which could halt space mis­sions.

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