Plutonium-238 pellet
Plutonium-238 pellet. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy
Plutonium-238 pellet
Plutonium-238 pellet. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

For the first time in nearly three decades, the U.S. has produced the first plutonium-238, an isotope used to power space missions.

The Department of Energy said Tuesday that it had produced 50 grams of Pu-238 at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the first time it had produced the isotope since the late 1980s.

Pu-238 is used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) to generate power where solar panels are impractical.

NASA is paying $15 million a year to restart Pu-238 production. [ORNL]

More on the Pu-238 saga:

♦ Plutonium Still Scarce, Production Restart Still Slow for Needy NASA

♦ NASA, U.S. Energy Department Would Split Cost of Restarting Pu-238 Production

 Russia Withholding Plutonium NASA Needs for Deep Space Exploration

More News

NASA’s InSight Mars lander will miss its March launch window, and could even be cancelled. The agency announced Tuesday it was suspending plans to launch the mission this March because of continued problems with one of its main instruments, a seismometer supplied by the French space agency CNES. The instrument experienced a series leaks in its vacuum chamber that would have kept it from working once on Mars, and NASA decided that, after the latest leak was found in testing Monday, the instrument could not be ready in time for launch. The next launch window is in May 2018, but NASA said it would study potential solutions to the instrument problem and their costs before making a decision on when, or even if, to launch the mission. [SpaceNews]

A Progress cargo spacecraft docked with the International Space Station early Wednesday. The Progress MS-1 spacecraft, designated Progress 62 by NASA, docked with the Pirs module of the ISS at 5:27 a.m. Eastern. The spacecraft launched early Monday. The spacecraft, the first in a new series of upgraded Progress vehicles, brought 2.8 tons of food, fuel and supplies to the station. [NASA]

An overlooked accomplishment of Monday night’s Falcon 9 launch was a relight of the vehicle’s second stage. The second stage restart, which took place after the vehicle’s payload of 11 Orbcomm satellites was deployed, was not needed for this mission but will be required for later launches of geostationary orbit satellites. The successful restart should clear the way for the launch of the SES-9 communications satellite on the upgraded Falcon 9 by late January. [SpaceNews]

Orbcomm’s stock soared Tuesday after the successful launch of its satellites. Shares in Orbcomm rose more than 10 percent in trading, closing near a 52-week high. The financial services company Canaccord Genuity issued a “buy” rating on the stock Tuesday, expecting its share price to increase by 50 percent. The bullish sentiment was linked to the launch, which completed Orbcomm’s second-generation satellite system that will offer improved services. [Seeking Alpha]

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The Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office received nearly three times its requested budget in the final omnibus bill. The office received $18.5 million in the omnibus, versus an original request of $6.5 million. The bill did not specify the use of the additional funding. The ORS Office is leading work on a small satellite to measure wind speed and direction near the ocean surface, replacing an aging Navy satellite, and could be asked to work on a new space surveillance satellite. [SpaceNews]

China’s Yutu rover has found a different kind of rock on the lunar surface. Scientists said basaltic rocks analyzed by the rover had concentrations of iron oxide, calcium oxide and titanium dioxide different from rocks elsewhere on the lunar surface returned by U.S. and Russian missions. Yutu, which landed two years ago, is continuing to return data although it has been immobilized since shortly after landing. [New Scientist]


The Zenit rocket might be reborn as the Fenix. The Russian space agency is still considering developing the Fenix rocket as part of its plan for the next decade despite serious budget cuts, according to an industry source. The rocket would be similar in capability to the Zenit, which flew what may have been its final mission earlier this month, and could use the same rocket engine in its first stage. [TASS]
Giant comets in the outer solar system could pose a great risk to life on Earth than previously believed. Astronomers said a family of objects known as centaurs, icy bodies orbiting beyond the orbit of Saturn, are deflected into orbits that cross the Earth once every 40,000 to 100,000 years. A typical centaur is up to 50 to 100 kilometers across, and once in the inner solar system would break up into a swarm of debris “making impacts on our planet inevitable” over periods of up to 100,000 years. Scientists said searches for near Earth asteroids should be extended to look for these larger and more distant objects. [AFP]

You First, Buzz

“Buzz Aldrin is a dear friend of mine, and he’s a brilliant scientist and astronaut. He’s obsessed with us going there on a whole other level. So, it’s an interesting question. I would be interested in going, but I do like the idea of the technology being tested to a certain degree before I risk doing it.”

– Actor John Travolta, an aerospace enthusiast, when asked during an interview if he would be interested in going to Mars. [Extra]

Programming Note: FIRST UP will not publish on Thursday or Friday. Our next issue will be Monday, Dec. 28. Happy Holidays!

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...