(Image source: Los Alamos National Laboratory)

BY STEVEN SPARKMAN
ANZHOR ZACH TOOMBS


Engineers at Los Alamos National Laboratory say they’ve built and tested the first new nuclear engine for space travel in nearly a half-century.

The reactor uses uranium for heat, and Stirling engines to convert that heat into electricity. The researchers say the engine could be the next big thing in deep space exploration.

The technology to build the new engine is actually decades old. So why is it being revived now?

Deep space missions, like the Apollo missions, the Voyager or Cassini probes or the Mars rovers, have all had at least some of their electronics powered by plutonium-238. And Wired explains that fuel is in short supply. (Video via NASA)

“...beginning in the early 1980s, the U.S. began decommissioning its plutonium production sites and by 1992 had no way to generate new plutionium-238. NASA’s Curiosity rover ... carried some of the last bits of American plutonium with it to the Red Planet.”

The new engine uses uranium instead, which is much easier to come by. The Department of Energy recently began producing plutonium-238 again, but it’s going to stay rare for some time.

Using uranium wherever possible allows researchers to put plutonium to use where it’s the only workable option. Plus, a writer for Electrical Engineering Times says it could give future deep space missions a power boost.

“Current space missions typically use power supplies that generate about the same amount of electricity as two household light bulbs. The availability of more power could potentially boost the speed with which mission data is transmitted back to Earth, or increase the number of spacecraft instruments that could be operated at the same time.”

If the new engines are put into use, Lab scientists say they’ll be able to power deep space probes while they keep exploring our neighboring planets and their moons. Oh, and they mention another possible use — Mars colonies!

“This small reactor could be scaled up to more challenging applications like surface power sources on Mars or spacecraft propulsion using electrically driven ion thrusters.”

And if you can handle something even more impressive — the entire project went from start to finish in six months and for less than a million dollars. Now that sounds like science fiction.

Engineers Build New Deep Space Nuclear Engine

by Steven Sparkman
0
Transcript
Nov 27, 2012

Engineers Build New Deep Space Nuclear Engine

 

(Image source: Los Alamos National Laboratory)

BY STEVEN SPARKMAN
ANZHOR ZACH TOOMBS


Engineers at Los Alamos National Laboratory say they’ve built and tested the first new nuclear engine for space travel in nearly a half-century.

The reactor uses uranium for heat, and Stirling engines to convert that heat into electricity. The researchers say the engine could be the next big thing in deep space exploration.

The technology to build the new engine is actually decades old. So why is it being revived now?

Deep space missions, like the Apollo missions, the Voyager or Cassini probes or the Mars rovers, have all had at least some of their electronics powered by plutonium-238. And Wired explains that fuel is in short supply. (Video via NASA)

“...beginning in the early 1980s, the U.S. began decommissioning its plutonium production sites and by 1992 had no way to generate new plutionium-238. NASA’s Curiosity rover ... carried some of the last bits of American plutonium with it to the Red Planet.”

The new engine uses uranium instead, which is much easier to come by. The Department of Energy recently began producing plutonium-238 again, but it’s going to stay rare for some time.

Using uranium wherever possible allows researchers to put plutonium to use where it’s the only workable option. Plus, a writer for Electrical Engineering Times says it could give future deep space missions a power boost.

“Current space missions typically use power supplies that generate about the same amount of electricity as two household light bulbs. The availability of more power could potentially boost the speed with which mission data is transmitted back to Earth, or increase the number of spacecraft instruments that could be operated at the same time.”

If the new engines are put into use, Lab scientists say they’ll be able to power deep space probes while they keep exploring our neighboring planets and their moons. Oh, and they mention another possible use — Mars colonies!

“This small reactor could be scaled up to more challenging applications like surface power sources on Mars or spacecraft propulsion using electrically driven ion thrusters.”

And if you can handle something even more impressive — the entire project went from start to finish in six months and for less than a million dollars. Now that sounds like science fiction.

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