Electricity in space, sounds fantastical right? Not necessarily! With the expectation that more individuals (both professional and consumers) will spend more time beyond our stratosphere, the great scientific minds of our time are thinking about solutions to this concern. While the wide variety of spacecraft currently orbiting our planet relies on solar power to generate electricity in space, nuclear power is quickly coming on the scene as a potential alternative.
NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy say they have successfully tested a new type of nuclear reactor that could one day provide electrical power to colonies on other worlds, including ones with limited access to solar power. The reactor can power several homes and appears able to operate in harsh environments such as on the moon or on Mars.
This experiment is in response to the challenge of getting a steady flow of reliable electricity in space. The farther away from Earth a satellite or astronaut is, the dimmer the sunlight is – making solar power only applicable close to the planet. Electricity is critical in space. The farther out you go, the harder it is to run communications, scientific instruments, and even critical life support functions.
On earth, nuclear power is a steady and reliable source of power generation. Even in space, nuclear power has become a popular option. It’s fueled several different space-based vehicles from NASA’s Pluto probe to the Curiosity rover on Mars. Nuclear sources are durable and can last a long time. Case in point, the two Voyager spacecraft launched more than 30 years ago are continuing to transmit valuable information back to earth, powered by the few pounds of plutonium on board.
That plutonium is in increasingly short supply, however, as it was a byproduct of nuclear weapon production during the Cold War. Production has stopped, but the demand for nuclear-powered spacecraft will only be increasing.
New reactors use a more conventional fuel source, uranium. Using a core no bigger than a paper towel roll, the reactor can turns pistons that in turn run a generator. This generator then puts out roughly 10 kilowatts of electricity, which is more than enough to fuel several small homes. Scientists believe it could run continuously for a decade or more, making deep space travel a whole lot simpler. The technology goes by the clever acronym KRUSTY, or Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology.
To test the technology, scientists took it to an old American nuclear test range in the Nevada desert. They logged almost 30 hours of testing at full power, simulating failures in reactor components to show it wouldn’t result in a meltdown on Mars. KRUSTY may very soon find its way on board future space probes. Researchers say they may use a team of up to five reactors to power extra-terrestrial colonies soon.
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