The British Sellafield nuclear reprocessing facility in Cumbria is working to harvest americium-241 from the nuclear waste of the country’s nuclear reactors in the hopes of turning the material into a feasible means for powering long-range spacecraft built by the European Space Agency.
The idea is based upon designs already used by the United States in powering their Voyager probes, which launched in 1977, and the later Cassini-Huygens probe in 1997.
The same design is also in effect by the latest Mars rover, Curiosity. Due to the fact that nuclear material gives off heat for many years, the waste can be used to keep a craft warm — and thus from freezing in the deep of space — or converting the same heat into electricity to power onboard systems.
The British National Nuclear Laboratory has already harvested some americium-241 from the plutonium waste left over from the production of nuclear weapons. The Sellafield facility — an offshoot from the original nuclear reactor site at nearby Windscale — reprocesses plutonium, uranium, and other fissionable materials from spent nuclear fuel.
The European Space Agency (ESA) would love to find a replacement for plutonium-238, as the material is currently only available from the United States and Russia. The agency believes that americium-241 would make a good choice.
Each nuclear battery would only need around 5 kilograms of the material, meaning that the British nuclear program could supply all the ESA needs for the foreseeable future.
On top of providing batteries for exploratory space missions and journeys to other planets, the nuclear batteries could also be used in long term undersea probes, or in buoys designed to monitor ocean conditions.
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