The Deep Space Energy Crisis Could Soon Be Over

On the face of it, powering most spacecraft would appear to be a straightforward engineering problem. After all, with no clouds to obscure the sun, adorning a satellite with enough solar panels to supply its electrical needs seems like a no-brainer. Finding a way to support photovoltaic (PV) arrays of the proper size and making sure they’re properly oriented to maximize the amount of power harvested can be tricky, but having essentially unlimited energy streaming out from the sun greatly simplifies the overall problem.

Unfortunately, this really only holds for spacecraft operating relatively close to the sun. The tyranny of the inverse square law can’t be escaped, and out much beyond the orbit of Mars, the size that a PV array needs to be to capture useful amounts of the sun’s energy starts to make them prohibitive. That’s where radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) begin to make sense.

RTGs use the heat of decaying radioisotopes to generate electricity with thermocouples, and have powered spacecraft on missions to deep space for decades. Plutonium-238 has long been the fuel of choice for RTGs, but in the early 1990s, the Cold War-era stockpile of fuel was being depleted faster than it could be replenished. The lack of Pu-238 severely limited the number of deep space and planetary missions that NASA was able to support. Thankfully, recent developments at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) appear to have broken the bottleneck that had limited Pu-238 production. If it pays off, the deep space energy crisis may finally be over, and science far in the dark recesses of the solar system and beyond may be back on the table.

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The Ins and Outs of Geiger Counters, for Personal Reasons

There are times in one’s life when circumstances drive an intense interest in one specific topic, and we put our energy into devouring all the information we can on the subject. [The Current Source], aka [Derek], seems to be in such a situation these days, and his area of interest is radioactivity and its measurement. So with time to spare on his hands, he has worked up this video review of radioactivity and how Geiger counters work.

Why the interest in radioactivity? Bluntly put, because he is radioactive, at least for the next week. You see, [Derek] was recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and one of the post-thyroidectomy therapeutic options to scavenge up any stray thyroid cells is drinking a cocktail of iodine-131, a radioisotope that accumulates in thyroid cells and kills them. Trouble is, this leaves the patient dangerously radioactive, necessitating isolation for a week or more. To pass the time away from family and friends, [Derek] did a teardown on a commercial Geiger counter, the classic Ludlum Model 2 with a pancake probe. The internals of the meter are surprisingly simple, and each stage of the circuit is easily identified. He follows that up with a DIY Geiger counter kit build, which is also very simple — just a high-voltage section made from a 555 timer along with a microcontroller. He tests both instruments using himself as a source; we have to say it’s pretty alarming to hear how hot he still is. Check it out in the video below.

Given the circumstances, we’re amazed that [Derek] is not only keeping his cool but exhibiting a good sense of humor. We wish him well in his recovery, and if doing teardowns like this or projects like this freezer alarm or a no-IC bipolar power supply helps him cope, then we all win.

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A Brief History of Radioactivity

More than one hundred years ago, Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium emitted penetrating rays similar to those used by Wilhelm Röntgen to take the first X-ray image (of his wife’s hand), starting a new era of far-reaching applications. There are of course many dangers that come with the use of radioactivity, but there are also many beneficial uses for our society.

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