Anita Krishnamurthi, John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow, anitak at aas.org
NASA is facing a serious shortfall in the supply of Plutonium-238 (Pu-238), the isotope used in electrical power systems for many space missions. This is an issue that directly affects future planetary missions and could eventually affect all areas of our community as we seek reliable power sources for missions and telescopes farther away from the Sun. Last year, Congress rejected the Department of Energy's (DOE) $30M budget request to restart domestic production of Pu-238. This year, the administration’s FY11 budget request contains $15M each for DOE and NASA to jointly pursue and begin the Pu-238 restart process.
The success of this restart effort is not guaranteed, and we are calling on the membership to get directly involved to advocate for this important budget item.
This Action Alert calls upon the AAS membership to write to their member of Congress asking them to support the restart of Pu-238. A sample letter is included below. Please send this letter in the next two weeks for maximum impact.
You could cut and paste the body of this letter directly onto your own letterhead, or simply use the text below as a guide for your own more personalized letter. Mailing a hardcopy of a letter has the greatest impact in Congressional offices.
You can easily find the names, mailing addresses, phone/fax numbers, and email addresses of your Congressional representatives online using the AAS's “zip to it” interface at http://aas.org/policy/aas.bios.html.
Letter template below: Replace items in [brackets] with your relevant info
[Honorable Senator/Representative XYZ]
[House or Senate Office Building]
[Washington, DC zip code]
Re: Please Support DOE/NASA Restart of Pu-238 for Space Exploration Missions
I am writing to urge you to fully support the Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA’s plans to restart the production of Plutonium-238 (Pu-238), the isotope used as a source of electrical power for many of NASA’s robotic space exploration missions.
Pu-238 is not a viable material for nuclear weapons and has not been produced in the U.S. since the late 1980s. It has been used to power many successful space missions, like the Voyager probes to the outer solar system, the Viking and Mars Science Laboratory missions to Mars, and the Cassini mission to Saturn—missions that could not have been done with solar power alone. However, many new NASA missions to explore the solar system cannot proceed without additional Pu-238 - there are no other viable substitute isotopes.
Restarting production as soon as possible is crucial as there is no current U.S. capability to produce this valuable resource, and the world's supply is rapidly declining. At best, there is only enough left to power one more spacecraft to the outer solar system and then the supply runs out. It will require five years or more from the time production restarts to produce enough Pu-238 to support a new mission, so action on this issue is required now.
The administration's FY2011 budget request includes $15M each for DOE and NASA to share the costs of re-establishing domestic Pu-238 production. I urge you to work to ensure that these DOE and NASA allocations remain in the final budget authorization and appropriation. The future of American space exploration is at stake!
Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can provide you or your staff any information on this issue as you consider this request.
Thank you for supporting space exploration and the scientific endeavors that it enables.
[Your signature and contact information]