U.S. lab generates first space-grade plutonium sample since 1980s

File photo of a plutonium-238 pellet. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

For the first time in nearly 30 years, the U.S. Department of Energy has produced a sample of plutonium-238, the radioactive isotope used to power deep space missions, good news for future NASA space probes heading to destinations starved of sunlight.

The 50-gram (0.1-pound) sample is a fraction of the plutonium needed to fuel one spacecraft power generator, but the Energy Department said the material represents the first end-to-end demonstration of plutonium-238 production in the United States since 1988.

The DOE made the new batch of plutonium-238 at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.