Jul 16 2015 12:01 am
This week, the New Horizons spacecraft has sent data and close up pictures of Pluto back to earth from 3 billion miles away.
For the last nine and a half years, this spacecraft has been generating most of its electrical power using PU-238 produced at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, SC. Originally, the New Horizons mission was to be fueled with freshly produced PU-238 from Russia because fresh fuel produces more electrical power. Because of delays and a shutdown of the Los Alamos processing facility in 2004, only a small amount of that fuel was available.
As a result, fuel that was produced by Savannah River in the 1980s had to be used. When New Horizons was launched in 2006, this mixture produced 15 percent less electrical power than was originally planned, but that amount was still considered adequate to complete the mission to Pluto. For almost three decades, Savannah River Site reactors and canyon facilities produced the PU-238 for NASA space missions that have explored all the outer planets in our solar system. It only seems appropriate that this mission to Pluto would also use fuel produced at Savannah River Site.