NASA’s Perseverance rover is the first spacecraft in years to deliver fresh American plutonium. It won’t be the last.

Deep inside some of NASA’s most famous space probes lie plutonium-filled hearts beating to warm and power robots, including a twin. Voyager spacecraft, Cassini before his daring breakthrough through the rings of Saturn and New Horizons trekking along the rubble of the Kuiper belt.

But after the Cold War, the US stopped producing its own plutonium. For a time, NASA was able to carry out its missions solely using existing or imported plutonium. But thanks to changes in the space agency’s partnership with the Department of Energy, fresh American plutonium left Earth again inside NASA’s Mars spacecraft last summer. Persistence all-terrain vehicle – and more missions will do so in the coming years. And this is vital for scientists studying the outer solar system.

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