I know the US has; a few have even left the solar system, there's some on the Moon, one on Mars, and one inside Saturn, though now "extensively modified". Rosetta had to hibernate for 2.5 years for want of the warmth from a cozy radioisotope.

The Soviet Union/Russia is a likely candidate of course, but there may be others as well.

Question: Which countries have built Radioisotope (powered) Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) and used them in Earth orbit and/or beyond?

If one country built it and another launched it, please count both. I've specified RTG where 'T' is for thermo-electric, but a radioisotope thermal generator alone would count in this case; it's getting a hold of the radioisotope in a proper form that's the biggest challenge.

note: Things change, don't rely exclusively on old sources.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ +1 for ‘extensively modified’. RIP Cassini 2017 $\endgroup$ – Jack May 23 '18 at 21:22

The USA has launched 30 RTGs so far, plus one fission reactor.

Little is known about Russian missions. The Lunokhod missions had radioisotope heaters, and Mars 96 had an RTG. They also launched some nuclear fission reactors on RORSAT missions.

China's Chang'e 3 lander uses an RTG (and the Chang'e 4 lander will use one too). No European mission has used RTGs, and it's unlikely any other nation has used them either.


There is a good treatment of the subject in the Wikipedia article on RTGs. I've talked with people at the Nuclear & Emerging Technologies for Space (NETS) conferences who have given me other useful tidbits. Some background helps understand why so few nations have undertaken the task of producing RTGs, and for those who have, why they might choose a particular isotope.

There are some very useful properties of candidate isotopes for RTGs:

  • The half-life must be both long enough to provide useful power for a reasonable amount of time, but short enough that the specific power (thermal power per mass of isotope) is reasonably high
  • Alpha decay is preferable to beta decay because you get much more energy per decay from alpha decay (typically a factor of ~10), and you need less shielding because the alpha particles are less penetrating and generate less gamma from bremsstrahlung
  • Low neutron emission rates and energies are preferable, either by the primary decay or by emission from the decay chain (decay of the sequence of daughter products from the primary decay)

For space applications plutonium 238 seems to be the best fit, at least for long-duration missions. But because producing specific isotopes in useful quantities generally requires reactors that produce the proper feedstock (such as neptunium 237) and a reactor with a particular neutron energy spectrum to transmute, say, Np to Pu (Np237 + n -> Np238; Np238 beta-decays to Pu238), sometimes producing the best isotope is very expensive (such as, designing and building a dedicated reactor) and institutions will opt for something else. For instance, early RTGs used polonium 210, and the Soviets even used strontium 90, a beta-decay isotope.

As mentioned in Hobbes's answer to this question, the Soviets launched multiple fission reactors into Earth orbit, but much less is known about their RTGs used in space. The Chinese have also joined the club.

ESA currently is studying production of a European space RTG and is considering Americium 241, with a lower specific power than Pu238. Building the infrastructure to produce RTGs is a long process, so it might take a decade or more, but they might be joining the club. http://www.unoosa.org/pdf/pres/stsc2012/tech-18E.pdf

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    $\begingroup$ Nice addition! Some good elaboration on the subject and interesting to hear about the ESA's studies. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage May 23 '18 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ Great answer, thanks! I've just asked How would an americium-241 RTG differ from one using plutonium-238? $\endgroup$ – uhoh May 24 '18 at 8:47
  • $\begingroup$ There is a possibility that ISRO might also be going with that fuel source for their RTG but very little information at present. redd.it/lfjcgp $\endgroup$ – Ohsin Mar 31 at 17:37

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