NASA has relied on that fuel, called plutonium-238, to power robotic missions for five decades.
But with supplies running low, scientists who want the government to make more are finding that it sometimes seems easier to chart a course across the solar system than to navigate the budget process inside Washington, D.C. [...]
“Because the United States has access to plutonium-238, we are the only country that has ever sent a science mission beyond Mars,” says Len Dudzinski, the program executive for radioisotope power systems at NASA headquarters. [...]
The pounds of plutonium loaded onto the soon-to-be-launched Mars Science Laboratory represent a significant fraction of a dwindling inventory. “I can’t tell you exactly what that fraction is,” says Dudzinski. “The Department of Energy knows the exact amount of plutonium that we have, and they don’t ordinarily share that number publicly.”
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Published: November 9th, 2011 at 9:42 am ET