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INL technology powers NASA Pluto mission

A NASA spacecraft will fly near Pluto for the first time next week as part of the space agency’s long-running “New Horizons” mission. What many may not know is that a crucial part of the mission was developed in eastern Idaho.

As early as 2002, Idaho National Laboratory scientists and engineers were building a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) to power NASA’s “New Horizons” spacecraft.

The RTG uses heat from the natural breakdown of plutonium to provide the unmanned spacecraft a virtually unlimited supply of electricity.

“The fuel that is there has the ability to continue to run for decades,” said Jamie Mitchell, an INL operator.

The spacecraft launched from the Kennedy Space Center in 2006. Nine years later, it’s finally on the verge of reaching Pluto – powered by the RTG throughout its four-billion-mile journey.

Before the INL could present NASA with the RTG in 2005, it had to undergo a series of tests to make sure it could withstand the vibrations of the initial rocket launch and that it could provide enough power to the spacecraft.

“They (RTGs) are an absolutely enabling technology,” said Stephen Johnson, director of the INL Space Nuclear Power & Isotope Technology Division.

The INL is currently in the process of developing an RTG for NASA’s upcoming Mars mission in 2020.

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