Uranium and plutonium have gotten famous, or infamous, because they are used in atom bombs. We could have been saying that about another material—one that few actually know. Learn about the material that didn’t quite make it into The Bomb.
Is NASA running out of plutonium? Scientific American looks into NASA’s dwindling supply of the stuff—most of it leftovers from Cold War-era weapons production—and what a jump in production might look like. As of now, they estimate there’s only enough left to power four new missions.
This block of plutonium appears to be glowing like a hot coal. Not a good sign! The glow is due to a property called pyrophoricity. A pyrophoric material will burst into flames when it comes into contact with everyday materials like water and oxygen.
Our epic journey to Pluto has been filled with cosmic coincidences. Crossing Neptune’s orbit 25 years to the day after Voyager 2. Zipping by Pluto 50 years on the nose after our first Mars encounter. But my favorite serendipitous fact of all has to do with how we’ve powered the entire New Horizons mission—using none…
The physicists who invented the nuclear bomb worked out of Los Alamos in New Mexico, but the people who did the dirty work of making the bombs were in Hanford, Washington. Throughout the Cold War, Hanford churned out plutonium for our nuclear arsenal. It was also, conveniently, a place to experiment with radiation.
A horrible accident at Los Alamos in 1958 illustrates what happens to a person's body when they stand next to plutonium during a chain reaction.
Radiation so often gets a bad rap. Obviously, no one wants to swallow a chunk of uranium, but some radiation isn't just harmless, it can keep you alive. Hopefully, most of you are sitting not-too-far from a piece of decayed plutonium right now - your smoke detector.
Did you know that plutonium is a literal joke? Not the full name, which is a fair enough name (though unaffiliated with an actual planet anymore). That little square on the periodic table is a joke, made by plutonium's discoverer, meant to stay up there for all time.
The horrors of the nuclear age, in terms of exploding reactors and nuclear bombs, are well known. Behind the well-publicized threat of mass death lies a secret history of nuclear projects being used to destroy individuals. In the late 1940s, United States citizens were injected with plutonium without their knowledge.