Research at JPL has developed new materials called skutterudites that have the potential of increasing the efficiency and power output of the radioisotope electric generators used on deep space missions where solar power will not work.
The new eMMRTG would provide 25 percent more power than Curiosity’s generator at the start of a mission, according to current analyses. Additionally, since skutterudites naturally degrade more slowly that the current materials in the MMRTG, a spacecraft outfitted with an eMMRTG would have at least 50 percent more power at the end of a 17-year design life than it does today.
“Having a more efficient thermoelectric system means we’d need to use less plutonium. We could go farther, for longer and do more,” Bux said.
This being NASA research, they are moving somewhat slowly in testing and confirming whether these new materials will work. They hope that after passing further reviews in 2017 and 2018 the agency might finally approve their use in subsequent missions.