Nuclear Power Could Blast Humans Into Deep Space

From Tech News World

By Peter Suciu

A team of researchers, including engineers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, this week reported their successful demonstration of a new concept that could provide reliable nuclear power for space exploration. The technology is still years away from the warp drive of Star Trek, but it could provide a means of propulsion for space travel beyond the moon.

The research team demonstrated the first use of a heat pipe to cool a small nuclear reactor and power a Stirling engine at the Nevada National Security Site’s Device Assembly Facility near Las Vegas. The Demonstration Using Flattop Fissions (DUFF) was the first use of a space nuclear reactor system to produce electricity in the United States since 1965.

“This is really a new old system, as it is a new platform build on an old technology,” said Michael Podowski, Ph.D., professor of nuclear engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“The Stirling engine is an old one,” he pointed out, but “the concept is very healthy. The nuclear factor is not an issue at this point. However, [achieving] efficiency will require a lot more work.

“While the concept is interesting and it makes good use of the elements involved,” Podowski told TechNewsWorld, “it will require more work. It is as simple as that.”

To the Final Frontier

Although progress in manned space exploration beyond Earth’s orbit is not progressing at light speed, there are several projects in the works, and DUFF is just one of many possibilities for getting from here to way out there.

“In general, development of effective and reliable Stirling generators — known as dynamic systems that use mechanically moving parts — could become very important for long duration space flight as an effective way of producing electrical power,” said Michael Gruntman, Ph.D., professor of aerospace engineering and systems architecture engineering at the University of Southern California.

“A lot of work is going on in this area,” he told TechNewsWorld.

This is especially necessary because getting there will require serious power.

“Space exploration requires a long-term energy source,” said Podowski. “Nuclear reactors are certainly the future of space exploration as there are no other sources of energy for such long-distance travel.”

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