Powering Human Outposts on Moon or Mars

Photo via flickr by Vattenfall

Three recent tests at different NASA centers and a national lab have successfully demonstrated key technologies required for compact fission-based nuclear power plants—the size of a trash can— for human settlements on other worlds.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., offers a one-of-a-kind test facility which, without using nuclear materials, enables engineers to simulate the nuclear power process of heat transfer from a reactor to a power converter.

“The recent tests bear out that Fission surface power system could be an important source of energy for exploration on the moon and Mars,” said Mike Houts, project manager for nuclear systems at Marshall. “This power system could provide an abundant source of reliable, cost-effective energy and may be used anywhere on the lunar surface.”

For this particular test series, the Marshall reactor simulator was linked to a Stirling engine, developed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, which converts heat into electricity. The testing may well be a key factor in demonstrating the readiness of fission surface power technology, and could provide NASA with an efficient and robust system to produce power in the harsh environment on the moon and Mars.

NASA’s current plan for human space exploration is to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 on expeditions that could lead to a permanent outpost for exploring the lunar surface and testing technologies that could aid a manned mission to Mars.

The space agency has been studying the feasibility of using nuclear fission power generators to support future moon bases. Engineers performed tests in recent weeks as part of a joint effort by NASA and the Department of Energy.

The next step for NASA’s fission power project is to combine its radiator, engine and alternator successes into a single non-nuclear power plant demonstration. That test is slated to begin in 2012, NASA officials said.

via ScienceDaily and NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

In a conversation with Sputnik Observatory, Vint Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, explained how nuclear power will support our galactic missions for decades:

As time goes on and, especially, as we try to go out to the outer planets we need to have new power supplies than simply solar converters. The reason for this is the farther away you go from the Sun, the less the intensity of energy hitting the solar panels, the less electricity is generated. And, at some point, you need too large solar panel to be feasible to deliver to some place out near Jupiter, or Saturn, or Uranus or something. So we need to reinstitute use of nuclear power, typically isotopic generators, using some radioactive material to generate electricity. Perhaps, in the longer term, we could even consider using nuclear reactors onboard these spacecraft in the same way we have used nuclear reactors onboard ships at sea in the Navy. I know that there are environmental concerns about the use of nuclear power in space, partly because during the launch phase, if anything goes wrong, people are concerned that if you crash you may splatter radioactive material around, and that would cause a lot of trouble. There are reactor designs that are quite robust when it comes to inhibiting the presence of radioactive material until after the reactor has actually been started, which we wouldn’t start until long after the launch was successful. So there are reasonable ideas, in my view anyway, to ultimately be able to use nuclear reactor power in space and, certainly, isotopic generators. The importance of that is they last longer. So we can be talking about missions with enough power to support them for decades as opposed to months. And where it is, the side effect of that is that as time goes on, if we follow that path, there will be more and more spacecraft in operation concurrently throughout the solar system. That’s not too different than what we have experienced here on Earth.

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