Finding a Power Supply for Space Probes - radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs.

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Finding a Power Supply      

Finding a Power Supply

When you imagine a space probe, what do you see? A big metal box, a forest of antennas, and a pair of solar panels, right? Wrong. Contrary to the stereotype, almost any space bound probe will not use solar panels as its primary power source. The energy from the sun at this distance is simply too small. An alternative is needed: something that is reliable, has a long-life, and is lightweight. What can we do? American engineers answered this very question in the early 1960s with the radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs.

RTGs work by converting the heat given off by a radioactive isotopes into electricity. To understand this process, it helps to understand what a radioactive isotope is. Radioactive isotopes come from elements which of course are non-renewable, these isotopes have extra neutrons and want to get rid of them. In doing so, they become radioactive, releasing protons, neutrons, and energy in a process called decay. Eventually the isotope will turn into other elements and disappear.

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At first glance, this might seem like the same process that takes place in nuclear reactors, but it isn’t. Nuclear reactors generate heat by fission, a process in which atoms are split by a bombardment of neutrons. In an RTG, heat is generated only by the natural radioactive emissions of the isotope contained in it. This is a much slower process, but the advantage is its stability; it can never go out of control and melt down.

Another advantage of RTGs is that they contain no moving parts. This is beneficial because moving parts tend to ...

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