Nuclear power to be harnessed for future endeavors to Mars and the Moon. On Friday, the U.S Department of Energy put out a request to the private sector, on how this can be accomplished to help humans live for long periods in the harsh environment of space.
How it began?
Exploration of space has become a race for countries to excel at. It reached its peak during the Cold War where the USSR and USA battled to gain the upper hand with the best technology and equipment to conquer space, which is the only area left for humans to expand out territorially. During such times, the space race picked for the superpowers to show off their technological achievements.
There was a great revolution in the field of Aerospace and major improvements in the technological abilities of Man-Made Spacecraft and satellites. This was also the time where nuclear energy was wildly considered to be used for space exploration.
Nuclear energy seemed to be the best option due to its ability to create large amounts of energy from small distortions in the molecular level. However, due to negative reactions from the public because of the various accidents and its major effects on lives and environment. It has always been deemed not worth risking and projects of such systems have been shunt upon.
Is it better than solar?
Solar Energy was considered the best source of energy to power a spacecraft and is more commonly used. However, Nuclear Power offers advantages in few areas that Solar energy cannot comply with. Solar cells are efficient but can supply the energy sufficiently high only during a solar flux, meaning the closer it is to the sun the better energy can be supplied. But space is dark, cold and non-resourceful. Most of the explorations dive into deep space where there is minimal to no light available. And Mars being further away from the sun makes it receive lesser solar energy from the sun, making it all the more difficult to power systems using solar panels.
This is where nuclear-based systems are handy, where it has less mass than solar cells of equivalent power and is independent in its power production. It can also provide with both life support and propulsion to the system and may reduce both cost and flight time.
Why has the usage of Nuclear Power in Space revived?
Nuclear power systems have been launched several times to reach space. One of the earliest and first satellites launched into earth’s orbit was Transit-4A in 1961 which used 238 Pu (Plutonium-238) as fuel in the RTG SNAP-3B Technology.
So, the usage of nuclear power in space has always been lingered and been used to launch satellites but now NASA has accelerated it plans to send astronauts to the moon by 2024 and by 2028 they plan to establish a sustainable lunar exploration. As is the case, NASA wants to accomplish all of this in the most efficient process and nuclear energy has proven itself over time. Now, to further explore alternatives, it is common for NASA to keep competitions or send request to other private sectors.
Because of this approach and the closing of the moon landing. It has increased the interest of millions to know how NASA plans to accomplish yet another “small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind”.
How do they plan on using nuclear power?
The plan can be devised into two phases. First, the design of a reactor is to be developed. Second, a test reactor is to be build and a second reactor to be sent to the moon. Also, development of a flight system and lander to transport the reactor to the moon will be underway.
Request has been sent to the private sector by the Energy Department and NASA on the development of nuclear power systems. The ideas will be evaluated by the Idaho National Laboratory, a nuclear research facility in eastern Idaho. They all plan to have webcast technical meeting in August concerning the programs expectations.
As of now, the reactor to be used must be able to generate uninterrupted electricity output of at least 10 Kilowatts. Compared to an average residential home in U.S.A, where 11,000 Kilowatts-hour per year is consumed. Additionally, the reactor should not weigh more than 3,500 kg and function autonomously in space for at least 10 years.
Exploration has been supported to revolve around the south polar region of the moon while the exploration for the Martian surface has not been identified.
How will it work?
Nuclear power in space has been around since the 1950s as mentioned earlier. Now, it can be segregated in the form of systems such as, small fission systems or radioactive decay for electricity or heat. Several space probes and crewed lunar missions have most commonly used the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator(RTG).
To generate power, a power-conversion unit consisting of two Stirling engines will be made to sit opposite each other. The set up for the testing was at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Electricity was generated when the pumped liquid metal transfers heat from the reactor to the engine.
Researchers have tested the performance of the Stirling alternator in a radiation environment at Sandia national laboratories in Albuquerque, NM. The main aim was to test the performance of the motor without degradation of the materials. The alternator was tested by subjecting it to radiations 20 times than what it could expect in its lifetime. It survived the whole test without any significant problems.
So far, the reports have pointed that one of the concepts in technology of testing a power source for missions to the moon and mars could be deployed by 2020. But has been slowed down due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Fission systems have been effective in reducing cost compared to the RTGs, where it can be utilized to power the spacecraft’s heating or propulsion systems. Several fission reactors have been proposed over decades, which makes fission reactors the closest choice for the next nuclear power system advancement.
Why use nuclear systems?
As discussed previously, why nuclear systems would fare better than solar panels. There are countless other reasons to why humanity can lend its trust in nuclear technology to help boost the accomplishment in colonizing the moon and mars.
Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) has been the basic generator device used in most of the space missions. It is prominently well protected and can sustain even during malfunctions. When the Nimbus B (a meteorological satellite) was launched, it malfunctioned in the booster guidance system and never reached the orbit. The spacecraft was destroyed but the SNAP-19 RTG was salvaged from the water, refurbished and later flown on Nimbus 3, which was a success.
This comes to show that not only can they sustain damages but are capable of being used again for future endeavor, making them more reliable than other sources of power.
Space is unforgiving and requires the upmost advantage while traversing through space. For that, the following reasons prove why nuclear power in space is beneficial:
- Unfazed by the lack of light
- Uninterrupted output power supply
- Reliable and sustainable for many years
- High output power compared to its size
Nuclear energy benefits the few, not the many. This is true when considering the fact that the nuclear power system will demand lots of expenses and have large risks every step of the way.
Especially, when huge power is generated, the nuclear power system produces comparatively more nuclear waste that could harm and cause hazardous effects for the people involved. Even though researchers have stated that the nuclear waste will be buried far away from the designated sites of the astronauts. The data however, gives an unsettling reminder of how nuclear waste has been dangerously hazardous and still can be potentially deadly with its radiation for thousands of years.
The Chernobyl incident is estimated to have caused around 10,000 deaths and also has left a long-term effect of radiation in the area. With such concerns, it is quietly nature to object the use of nuclear power systems. What good can it be when it could potentially radiate the surrounding with harmful radiation and make it even more uninhabitable than it already is.
Humans have conquered every inch of this earth one step at a time. By conquering the land with vehicles on roads and railways, with ships and submarines in/on water, the air with aircrafts and drones and now the space with satellites and spacecraft’s, to soon be able to create colonies and settle in other worlds. These technological achievements of man are what drives them to be better and evolves them to do better than before.
Nuclear technology has its pros and cons, but overall every technology faces that. If NASA is capable of accomplishing the next big leap for human space exploration and nuclear is one way that can help them. Then, finding the best and most effective ways to carry it out without the risk of endangering the planet or other life forms is crucial.