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Argonne Lab is developing battery for NASA missions

The thermal space battery being developed at Argonne National Laboratory-West will help NASA discover if water exists on the moons of Jupiter. Argonne National Laboratory-West photo

By Steven Friederich - Journal Writer

ARCO - A thermal space battery being developed at Argonne National Laboratory-West will help NASA discover if water, and perhaps life, exists on the moons of Jupiter.

The space battery will be attached to a long-range exploration probe and should be launched by 2012, Argonne officials said.

Scientists have long suspected some form of life could be under water on Jupiter's moon of Europa, which NASA's Galileo spacecraft found contains fractures in its crust as large as 18.5 miles across.

Reports show areas between those plates are filled with material that is probably icy slush contaminated with rocky debris.

Scientists have said three ingredients are considered essential for life: water, energy and the necessary chemical compounds.

"The first thing I would be looking at in Europa is the presence of water and then to confirm it's liquid water, not ice," said Martin Hackworth, senior astronomy lecturer at Idaho State University. "Then I'd see if there's anything that lives in the liquid water or if something's crawling around."

Argonne is refining a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or space battery, that can survive in a harsh space environment for decades. That's vital because it took other space probes like Galileo more then a decade to reach Jupiter.

Not to be confused with a nuclear reactor, RTGs convert thermal energy from the decay of radioisotope materials to electrical currents. As the Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter's plutonium 238 decays, for example, the heat generated is changed to electricity.

The Department of Energy transferred the space battery program from Ohio to Argonne last year because of plutonium security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Argonne spokesman Paul Pugmire said.

Pugmire cautions, however, the plutonium 238 cannot explode.

The space battery is now kept in a secured area of the Argonne National Laboratory complex. Visitors must receive management approval before seeing the facility and must also go through three metal detectors and past a number of guards armed with rifles.

The battery itself isn't much to look at. Kept behind a locked gate bearing radioactive warnings, the battery weighs 125 pounds, is 44 inches high and has a diameter of nearly 17 inches.

A report by NASA indicates the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter's space battery would power its ion thrusters, giving the craft more than 100 times as much power as a non-fission system of comparable weight.

The heat would also keep its instruments from freezing in space. The instruments are important because they will most likely have radar for mapping the thickness of surface ice and a laser instrument for mapping surface elevations.

Other onboard instruments would likely include a camera, an infrared imager, a magnetometer, and instruments to study charged particles, atoms and dust that the spacecraft encounters near each moon.

A generous electrical power supply available from the onboard nuclear system could also run higher-powered instruments than have flown on other spacecraft. It would also boost the data transmission rate back to Earth, according to a NASA report.

The evidence from Galileo suggests melted water on Europa has been in contact with the surface in geologically recent times and may still lie relatively close to the surface. Studies from the orbiter would be able to confirm that, according to NASA.

"I'd give my right arm to be assured I'll be around when we finally get a response out of that probe," ISU's Hackworth said.

Besides the Jupiter probe, Argonne scientists are also working on a space battery for a mission to Pluto and its moon, Charon, by 2006. That battery would provide power to help orbiter scientists better understand if Charon is, in fact, a moon or a small planet trapped in Pluto's gravity. It would also mark the first time an orbiter has visited Pluto.

Pugmire said he hopes the success of the orbiter missions will showcase Argonne's talent and help it eventually secure a space nuclear center.

Such a center could help perfect nuclear propulsion, which could get humans to Mars twice as fast as current rockets. The only other feasible way to increase the momentum of a spacecraft traveling to Mars is to slingshot it around the sun.

The facility already has a Zero Power Physics Reactor which has been used to study and design more than 20 types of nuclear reactors and "could easily accommodate the design of a space propulsion reactor," Pugmire said.

Argonne's Experimental Breeder Reactor II, shut down after a 30-year run in 1994, could also be converted to suit a space propulsion reactor because of its intact dome, Pugmire said.

"If we want to put a man on Mars, the best way to do it is with nuclear propulsion and our scientists want to be part of it," Pugmire said.

Steven Friederich covers the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory along with federal and local political issues for the Journal. He can be reached at (208) 239-6001 or by e-mail at