Oak Ridge powers NASA missions

ORNL researcher works with radioactive material/ (WVLT)
ORNL researcher works with radioactive material/ (WVLT)(WVLT)
Published: May. 10, 2019 at 6:07 PM EDT
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For years we've relied on NASA to show us outer space, Now NASA is relying on East Tennessee to keep exploring space.

"Voyager lifted off in 1977, and it's still sending data back data to us as it goes to the end of the solar system and beyond," ORNL researcher Bob Wham said.

It's still going since it's powered by a radioactive material called Plutonium-238, just like the Mars Rover.

"The drills that are used to drill for samples of material, or even the cameras that are used to take selfies when you're on Mars," Wham said.

The supply for future missions are running low since the U.S. stopped producing it.

"It was last made in 1988, and that material is decaying, to where it's not going to be useful in the future," Wham said.

That's where scientists like Wham at the Oak Ridge National Lab come in.

"Our operators would have to weigh out some aluminum, weigh out some neptunium oxide, put them together and blend them, so they get a good uniform mixture, and press it into pellets," Wham said. "All these operations were done by hand through gloves."

With a little ingenuity they were able to automate that process, meeting the demands of NASA.

"It takes us from roughly 50 or 75 grams a year, to maybe 400 grams a year," Wham said. "Then we will take another step in the future and go to a 1.5 kilograms for year."

Those pellets are then put in a reactor to create the fuel that powers our space missions.

"The mars rover used just under 5 kilograms of Plutonium," Wham said. "There are some other big missions that have used a lot more."

All of that fuel will be made right here in East Tennessee.

"It's pretty cool to think that were going to be powering the Mars 2020 rover," Wham said.

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