Nuclear Power on the Go: Nuclear Power Plants for Human Settlements on the Moon and Mars

The first nuclear power plants built for the production of electricity for bases on the Moon, Mars, and other planets may almost seem taken from a science fiction movie, but not according to Dr. James E. Werner, a project manager who spoke at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Denver, Colorado.

In fact, according to Dr. James E. Werner, the innovative technology for the fission in space is very different from our familiar nuclear plants, spreading over large tracts of land and equipped with large structures and huge cooling towers.

The nuclear reactor would be about 1 1/2 feet wide and about 2 1/2 feet high, just about the size of a suitcase and the total size of the nuclear plant would be approximately 1.64 feet wide and 8.2 feet high. In the project there are no cooling towers and the fission system is compact, reliable, and safe, which proves to be crucial for the creation of habitats and outposts on other planets. The power of fission technology can be applied to the Moon, Mars, or wherever NASA is expected to need a constant supply of power.

Obviously, this will be an optimal solution for all those who are working on plans for a prolonged manned mission to the Moon or Mars, because having a stable and reliable energy source is of primary importance for a mission of this magnitude. Habitats will need a continuous supply of energy just to keep the astronauts alive.

The energy then will serve for the extraction, processing and recycling of water, cultivation and storage of food, oxygen production, and last but not least, the re-processing of carbon dioxide, which will also supply computers, light, electronic components, waste management equipment and other basic necessities. A system of energy production that can ensure constant energy is much needed, and the proposal made during the ACS convention about the new fission reactors would be a viable method to supply this energy.

As of now, the most widely used supplier of nuclear technology is the RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator), which has already played a key role for many of the most important exploration missions ever undertaken. The RTG are not nuclear fission reactors, but small pellets of plutonium-238, a radioisotope that can produce heat which decays into more stable elements. The Voyager probes have been using this technology, as well as the Cassini probe, now orbiting Saturn and the New Horizons probe heading to Pluto. November 2011, will be the turn for the first rover going to Mars, which will have a system-based RTG as a source of energy.

The RTG are really great for small missions, but in order to provide the necessary energy for an entire base on Mars, fission reactors would be much more desirable because they are capable of providing much more energy. An alternative to fission reactors would obviously be solar panels, but fission reactors offer the advantage of ensuring a constant flow of energy during the night and in difficult conditions such as those found on the Moon or on Mars.

The scientist team is expected to build a demonstration unit of this technology in 2012 and if the experiment will be successful, this new technology will soon supply vehicles and dispositive for astronauts in space missions. This is a collaborative project between NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Dr. James E. Werner leads the DOE of the Idaho National Laboratory which is actively committed to the reactor project, the development and manufacture of fuel, and the development of a small electric pump for the cooling system of liquid metal.

Sunlight and solar panels have been the pillars for the generation of electricity for space missions in the past, but engineers have realized that solar power has its limits. Solar panels do a great job in providing electricity in near-Earth orbits and satellites, but nuclear energy offers some unique features capable of supporting manned outposts on other planets and moons. The main point of Dr. James E. Werner is that nuclear energy can provide an energy-rich environment for both astronauts and scientific equipment, and that this technology is mature, convenient, and safe to use.

The fission power system relies on energy produced by nuclear fission. Nuclear fission operates by splitting uranium atoms to generate heat that is then converted into electrical energy. The main components of a fission system are similar to those found in commercial reactors currently in use. Dr. James E. Werner warned though, that despite the similarities in the components, the fission power systems for space applications have a number of differences compared to commercial reactors.

The physical principles are basically the same, but the amount of power used, the reactor’s control system, and the material used for the back-reflection of neutrons-nucleus are completely different. Weight is also a significant factor that must be minimized in a reactor space, something that would not be considered in a commercial reactor.

Dr. James E. Werner also claimed that, once the technology is developed and validated, it could prove to be one of the most convenient and versatile options for the long-term supply of power in space exploration programs.

The use of nuclear energy is certainly not going through an easy time right now, especially after the disaster in Japan with the Fukushima’s accident, but in the search for safer, more efficient, and more advanced, technologies for renewable energy, nuclear power may play a fundamental role for the future exploration and colonization of the Moon and Mars.

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