NASA Future ‘In Doubt’: Deep Space Missions Threatened Over Huge Plutonium Shortage


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. 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 20140. 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.

“I think those have a lot of ethical consequences so they’re still in the experimental thought stages.” Russia, China, the European Space Agency and the US are currently embroiled in a new age space race to become the first to get to Mars.

SpaceX’s Elon Musk has also outlined plans for a cargo journey to Mars by 2022 as well as a moon base. The entrepreneur’s SpaceX company plans its first trip to the Red Planet will be in 2022, carrying only cargo, followed by a manned mission in 2024.

Mr Musk, who serves as chief executive and lead designer of Space Exploration Technologies, said his company has shrunk the size of the rocket ship planned to go to Mars and they are aiming to start construction on the first spaceship in the first half of next year.