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published by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
supported by the U.S. Department of Energy
This is a multimedia overview of RPS (radioisotope power systems), a type of nuclear energy technology that uses heat to produce electricity for powering spacecraft. The heat is produced by the natural radioactive decay of plutonium-238. RPS systems have been in use for more than 50 years, and could continue to support missions to some of the most extreme environments in the solar system. Advantages of RPS include: continuous operation over long-duration space missions, largely independent of changes in sunlight, temperature, charged particle radiation, or surface conditions like thick clouds or dust.

This resource is part of NASA's Solar System Exploration website. It includes videos, 3D interactive animations, illustrations, schematics of RPS components, and fact sheets about how the technology has been used in past missions.

Please note that this resource requires Flash.
Subjects Levels Resource Types
- Solar System
- Space Exploration
= Robotic Exploration
Education Practices
- Technology
= Multimedia
Electricity & Magnetism
- Electromagnetic Induction
= Motors and Generators
- Electromotive Force and Current
= Thermoelectricity
Modern Physics
- Nuclear Physics
= Nuclear Reactions
- High School
- Lower Undergraduate
- Informal Education
- Upper Undergraduate
- Instructional Material
= Activity
= Simulation
= Tutorial
- Reference Material
= Nonfiction Reference
- Audio/Visual
= Image/Image Set
= Movie/Animation
Intended Users Formats Ratings
- Educators
- Learners
- text/html
- application/flash
- image/gif
- video/shockwave
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exploration, missions, planets, radioactive decay, radioisotope, radioisotope heaters, robotic exploration, robots, rovers, solar system, space exploration, space missions, space program, thermoelectric generator
Record Cloner:
Metadata instance created October 30, 2012 by Caroline Hall
Record Updated:
November 6, 2012 by Caroline Hall
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AAAS Benchmark Alignments (2008 Version)

3. The Nature of Technology

3A. Technology and Science
  • 9-12: 3A/H1. Technological problems and advances often create a demand for new scientific knowledge, and new technologies make it possible for scientists to extend their research in new ways or to undertake entirely new lines of research. The very availability of new technology itself often sparks scientific advances.

4. The Physical Setting

4A. The Universe
  • 9-12: 4A/H3. Increasingly sophisticated technology is used to learn about the universe. Visual, radio, and X-ray telescopes collect information from across the entire spectrum of electromagnetic waves; computers handle data and complicated computations to interpret them; space probes send back data and materials from remote parts of the solar system; and accelerators give subatomic particles energies that simulate conditions in the stars and in the early history of the universe before stars formed.
4D. The Structure of Matter
  • 9-12: 4D/H4. The nucleus of radioactive isotopes is unstable and spontaneously decays, emitting particles and/or wavelike radiation. It cannot be predicted exactly when, if ever, an unstable nucleus will decay, but a large group of identical nuclei decay at a predictable rate. This predictability of decay rate allows radioactivity to be used for estimating the age of materials that contain radioactive substances.
4E. Energy Transformations
  • 9-12: 4E/H6. Energy is released whenever the nuclei of very heavy atoms, such as uranium or plutonium, split into middleweight ones, or when very light nuclei, such as those of hydrogen and helium, combine into heavier ones. For a given quantity of a substance, the energy released in a nuclear reaction is very much greater than the energy given off in a chemical reaction.

8. The Designed World

8C. Energy Sources and Use
  • 9-12: 8C/H3. Nuclear reactions release energy without the combustion products of burning fuels, but the radioactivity of fuels and their by-products poses other risks.
  • 9-12: 8C/H6. The useful energy output of a device—that is, what energy is available for further change—is always less than the energy input, with the difference usually appearing as thermal energy. One goal in the design of such devices is to make them as efficient as possible—that is, to maximize the useful output for a given input.

Common Core State Reading Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects 6—12

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas (6-12)
  • RST.11-12.9 Synthesize information from a range of sources (e.g., texts, experiments, simulations) into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible.
Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity (6-12)
  • RST.11-12.10 By the end of grade 12, read and comprehend science/technical texts in the grades 11—CCR text complexity band independently and proficiently.
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Record Link
AIP Format
(National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, 2006), WWW Document, (
NASA: Radioisotope Power Systems, (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, 2006), <>.
APA Format
NASA: Radioisotope Power Systems. (2006). Retrieved June 26, 2016, from National Aeronautics and Space Administration:
Chicago Format
Department of Energy. NASA: Radioisotope Power Systems. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2006. (accessed 26 June 2016).
MLA Format
NASA: Radioisotope Power Systems. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2006. Department of Energy. 26 June 2016 <>.
BibTeX Export Format
@misc{ Title = {NASA: Radioisotope Power Systems}, Publisher = {National Aeronautics and Space Administration}, Volume = {2016}, Number = {26 June 2016}, Year = {2006} }
Refer Export Format

%T NASA: Radioisotope Power Systems
%D 2006
%I National Aeronautics and Space Administration
%C Washington
%O text/html

EndNote Export Format

%0 Electronic Source
%D 2006
%T NASA: Radioisotope Power Systems
%I National Aeronautics and Space Administration
%V 2016
%N 26 June 2016
%9 text/html

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NASA: Radioisotope Power Systems:

Same topic as PhET Simulation: Alpha Decay

This simulation promotes understanding of alpha decay, the same decay mode produced by Plutonium 238, the fuel source currently used by NASA in RPS systems.

relation by Caroline Hall
Is Based On NASA: Radioisotope Generator Facts

A fact sheet from NASA that fully explains the design of radioisotope thermoelectric generators - their applications in space exploration, potential hazards, and future alternatives to their use.

relation by Caroline Hall

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