Nuclear reactor destined for deployment on other planets

Engineers in the US are working on a nuclear reactor that can be deployed on other planets.

A team made up of NASA and the US Department of Energy (DOE) is scheduled to build a technology demonstration unit in 2012.

James E Werner leads the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory involvement in this effort, which includes participation in the reactor design and modelling teams, fuel development and fabrication and development of a small electrical pump for the liquid-metal cooled system.

Sunlight and fuel cells were the mainstays for generating electricity for space missions in the past, but engineers realised that solar energy has limitations. Solar cells can supply electricity in near-Earth orbits and for satellite-borne equipment, but nuclear power is said to offer some unique capabilities that could support manned outposts on other planets or moons.

‘A fission power system on the moon could generate 40kW or more of electric power — approximately the same amount of energy needed to power eight houses on Earth,’ said Werner at a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society.  

In addition, he said that a fission power system could operate in a variety of locations, such as in craters, canyons or caves.

‘The main point is that nuclear power has the ability to provide a power-rich environment to the astronauts or science packages anywhere in our solar system and that this technology is mature, affordable and safe to use,’ Werner said.

Werner contends that once the technology is developed and validated, it may prove to be one of the most affordable and versatile options for providing long-term base power for the space exploration programmes.

With plutonium-238 supplies running low, the race is on to find new power sources for spacecraft. Click here to read more.