The Astronomy Center has provided educational resources to introductory astronomy educators since 2003. Over the past 20 years, the rapid pace of discovery has rendered some of our linked resources obsolete. Thus, the Astronomy Center will be decommissioned on March 1, 2022. Our highest quality resources will be retained on ComPADRE.org.
the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
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.
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.
%0 Electronic Source %D 2021 %T NASA: Radioisotope Power Systems %I National Aeronautics and Space Administration %V 2023 %N 10 December 2023 %9 text/html %U https://rps.nasa.gov/
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