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Plutonium in Space

By Bill Nye | Published: November 12, 2009 – 10:31 am

About fifteen years ago, I had the honor and pleasure of having lunch with Glenn Seaborg. Unlike many of us, he was awarded a Nobel Prize. He discovered, or created, or contrived the means to prepare the very first piece of Plutonium humans had ever seen. He was of the Nuclear Age, a time when it was imagined that nuclear power would render electricity too cheap to even bother charging customers for.

Plutonium is not only fantastically dangerous on account of it being radioactive, but it’s also remarkably toxic. Glenn Seaborg told me that inhaling a milligram would kill a person in seconds – this over lunch. Glenn (by this point in the lunch, I called him Glenn), also told us that “they” (his colleagues) wanted him to call it Plutinum [PLOO-tih-Numm]. Then he said, but, let’s face it Bill (calling me Bill, very fine with me), Plutonium [Ploo-TOE-Nee-umm] sounds a lot cooler [KOO-ler]. He emphasized that he insisted, back in the day, that this newly discovered metal’s atomic symbol be Pu, [pee-Yew]. He wanted, he said, to emphasize that Plutonium “stinks.”

You make it by transmuting Uranium two-thirty-eight (238), which has 92 protons and 146 neutrons into Plutonium 238, which has 94 protons and 144 neutrons – simple enough(?!). At any rate, after you use a nuclear reactor, maybe with some Neptunium and just the right geometry, your Plutonium is strikingly energetic. That’s why the U.S. Department of Energy finds the bombs made with Plutonium so, well, energetic, as well.

This would be just another astonishing example of a few humans, through astonishing diligence, discovering another astonishing secret of the Universe. But for all of us, there’s even a little more to it.

Plutonium is what we use to know our place in the Universe. Plutonium is not only good for bombs; it’s what we use to make electricity on spacecraft. These electrical gizmos (gizmoes?) use the heat produced by radioactive compacted Plutonium to drive electrons from one piece of metal to another not-quite-the-same (dissimilar) metal. And, these radioactively heated coupled metals make electricity- for 30 years running. We call them Radio-Thermometric Generators (RTG’s).

The U.S. Government, Congress, the President, et al have decided that Plutonium is so stinky that we don’t need any of it anymore. Owing to its inherent dangerous quality, that might seem like a good idea. But, we in the United States, our Earth’s leader in interplanetary exploration, will no longer be able to explore a planet beyond Mars. See, the thing-of-it is that there is not enough sunlight out there. Out where Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and the Plutoids are, sunlight is so spread out that we cannot power our electronics. Oh, you can hope for some kooky and fabulous new innovations to make distant space ships continue to sail. But really people, the problem is too hard, much too hard. We need some, a very small amount indeed, of Plutonium.

So, maybe next time around voters and taxpayers can help their representatives see the light, or the heat, of Plutonium – just a little.

For now though, we’re going to have to count on our telescopes and the dozen or so spacecraft that still carry RTG’s. This would include the next Mars rover, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) that, unlike the Spirit & Opportunity rovers will be able to work hard all winter there. New Horizons, the Pluto mission would be dark and cold as well as being out in the dark and cold. And Jupiter? Saturn? Without their RTG’s we would have no shadows on rings. We would know nothing of storms in a gas giant. The fuel of an RTG is dangerous, but these craft let us make amazing discoveries and help us address the two questions that drive us all. Where did we come from, and are we alone??

Here’s hoping, in the next few years, we decide to spend $30 million it would take to keep the outer planets within reach.

Copyright Bill Nye

One Response to “Plutonium in Space”

  1. hey bill how did jupiter form.

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