Tag Archives: nuclear reactors space

Nuclear Power Invades Space

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is testing a technology known as “nuclear thermal propulsion”… DARPA spacecraft will carry a small nuclear reactor. Inside, uranium atoms will be split to generate tremendous heat…to produce thrust. Such a spacecraft could climb to a geostationary orbit above the Earth, nearly 36,000km up, in mere hours. Satellites that burn normal rocket fuel need several days for the same trip. Nuclear-powered satellites with abundant power would also be hard to destroy—their trajectories could be changed often enough to become unpredictable. DARPA  wants to test its spacecraft, dubbed DRACO  (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations), in orbit in 2025.

Other proposals are for radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). These kinds of “nuclear batteries” have long been used to power probes sent into deep space, where solar power is especially feeble. Instead of building a nuclear reactor, an RTG uses devices called thermocouples to produce a modest wattage from heat released by the decay of radioactive isotopes. Plutonium-238, which is a by-product of weapons development, has been used by NASA to power both the Voyager probes, launched in the 1970s and still functioning, as well as the Curiosity rover currently trundling around Mars. Plutonium-238, however, is heavily regulated and in short suppl..Cobalt-60, with a half-life of 5.3 years, is a promising alternative and available commercially.

DARPA Draco Image https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3ubR9F55nk

How safe is it, however, to send nuclear devices, especially reactors, into space?…A danger is accidental atmospheric re-entry. The Soviet Union flew at least 33 spy satellites with nuclear reactors for onboard power (but not propulsion). In one accident, the reactor in a satellite named Kosmos 954 failed to ascend into a high-enough “disposal orbit” at the end of its mission. In 1978 it ended up spraying radioactive debris over a swathe of Canada’s Northwest Territories…The fuel for the Soviet Kosmos 954…was 90% uranium-235, similar to the material used in the atom bomb detonated over Hiroshima in 1945…

America is not alone in its nuclear quest. China and Russia are also developing nuclear power for space. China’s wish list includes a fleet of nuclear-powered space shuttles. Russia is designing an electric-propulsion cargo spacecraft called Zeus, which will be powered by a nuclear reactor. Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, hopes to launch it in 2030. The prospect of more capable satellites will, no doubt, raise suspicions among spacefaring nations. Nuclear spacecraft with abundant electrical energy could be used to jam satellite communications…..

And not all of the interest in nuclear power comes from the armed forces. NASA…wants a nuclear plant to power a base on the Moon

Excerpt from Faster, higher, stronger: Why space is about to enter its nuclear age, Economist, Feb. 5, 2022

Solar and Chemicals Are Not Enough: Nuclear Reactors in Space

Chinese scientists are currently building a powerful nuclear reactor for their moon and Mars expeditions. Beijing claims its reactor will be 100 times more powerful than the device US space agency NASA wants to set up on the moon’s surface by 2030. ..One Chinese expert claims that to satisfy the objectives of human space exploration, chemical fuel and solar panels will no longer suffice; the hunger for more energy sources is likely to grow dramatically if there are human settlements on the moon or Mars in the future.

In November 2021, NASA has issued a request for proposals for the development of a 10-kilowatt nuclear fission device capable of supporting a long-term human presence on the moon within a decade…The plan is to deploy a fission surface power system by 2026, with a flying system, lander, and reactor in place. The facility will be completely built and integrated on Earth, then thoroughly tested for safety and functionality…In addition, Russia has also indicated its intention to launch a massive spaceship powered by TEM, a megawatt-sized nuclear reactor, before 2030. The spaceship would be able to function in Earth’s lower orbit for more than a decade while conducting more missions to the moon or beyond owing to the nuclear energy.

Democritos, a parallel project led by the European Space Agency, will test a 200kW nuclear space reactor on the ground by 2023. Additionally, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg says that the alliance will not put weapons in space, but it will be required to safeguard its assets, which include 2,000 satellites in orbit. Space is becoming an “operational domain” for NATO as well…

Excerpts from  Ashish Dangwal, 100 Times More Powerful Than US Tech, China Claims Its Nuclear Reactor For Space Missions Will Outdo NASA Device, Eurasiantimes.com, Nov. 26, 2021

How to Reach Beyond the Stars? Nuclear Power

The US President issued Space Policy Directive-6 (SPD-6), the Nation’s Strategy for Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion (SNPP) on Dec. 16, 2020. Space nuclear systems power spacecraft for missions where alternative power sources are inadequate, such as environments that are too dark for solar power or too far away to carry sufficient quantities of chemical fuels. Space nuclear systems include radioisotope power systems and nuclear reactors used for power, heating, or propulsion. SPD-6 establishes high-level goals, principles, and a supporting roadmap that demonstrate the U.S. commitment to using SNPP systems safely, effectively, and responsibly…

NASA, the Department of Energy, and industry will design, fabricate, and test a 10-kilowatt class fission surface power system. NASA plans to demonstrate the system on the Moon in the late 2020s, providing power for sustainable lunar surface operations and testing its potential for use on Mars.  The space agency is also advancing nuclear thermal and nuclear electric propulsion capabilities. Nuclear propulsion can enable robust human exploration beyond the Moon. For crewed missions to the Red Planet, a traditional chemical propulsion system would require a prohibitively high propellant mass. 

NASA Supports America’s National Strategy for Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion, NASA Press Release, Dec. 16, 2020