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DOE Technology Supports Upcoming NASA Mission to Pluto

Press Release From: Department of Energy
Posted: Monday, January 16, 2006

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WASHINGTON, DC -- When the New Horizons spacecraft is launched on Tuesday, January 17, 2006, on a mission to Pluto and its moon Charon, it will be powered by deep space battery technology developed by the Department of Energy's Idaho, Oak Ridge and Los Alamos national laboratories. This technology will play a key role in the first NASA mission to the last planet in our solar system.

"This technology is a tremendous example of how DOE's national laboratories are helping to significantly expand scientific research and discovery," said Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. "Because of our outstanding scientists and engineers at our national labs, the sky truly is the limit."

Each laboratory played an integral role in the development, assembly and testing of a radioisotope thermoelectric generator or "RTG" -- a power system or "space battery" that provides an uninterrupted and reliable source of heat and electricity in remote and harsh environments such as deep space. The RTG will provide power and heat to the New Horizons spacecraft and on-board scientific equipment through the radioactive decay of nuclear material. The heat generated by this nuclear material is converted into electricity by solid-state thermoelectrics. RTGs, which have been used by NASA for nearly forty years, enable spacecraft to operate at significant distances from the Sun or in other areas where remote solar power systems would not be feasible.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed and fabricated the material used to encapsulate the plutonium; Los Alamos National Laboratory purified, pelletized into a ceramic form and encapsulated the plutonium; and Idaho National Laboratory assembled and tested the RTG and safely delivered the flight-ready RTG to the Kennedy Space Center.

The launch window for New Horizons opens on January 17, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. New Horizons will cross the entire span of the solar system -- in record time -- and conduct flyby studies of Pluto and its moon in 2015. For more details on the New Horizons mission, visit the NASA web site at      http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html

Additional information on the department's role in developing nuclear energy technologies for space exploration may be found at the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology's web site,      http://www.nuclear.gov

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