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article imageOp-Ed: US successfully tests small nuclear power plant for Mars mission

By Paul Wallis     Jan 20, 2018 in Technology
Washington - In what is actually a very large step forward, NASA has tested a small, “paper towel roll” sized nuclear power plant to deliver power for a Mars mission. The fallout from this idea, pun intended, will be interesting.
The tests address a critical issue for any Mars mission; where is the power to operate a surface mission to come from? There are other options, notably hydrogen, solar, etc., but the amount of power required is estimated to be up to 50Kw of power. That’s quite a lot of power, and guessing about whether the power system will work is not an option.
To perhaps explain the obvious in a bit more depth:
1. Whatever power system is used has to be easily, demonstrably, transportable. The small size of the little nuclear reactor is a big plus.
2. The power system must be maintainable, meaning spares are required, meaning space requirements in transit. Smaller IS better.
3. Demand for power on Mars may well include a few unforeseen critical requirements based on immediate needs. A less powerful passive system may not be able to deliver enough extra power.
The nuclear power system will be used to develop resources on Mars, like water, oxygen extraction, hydrogen extraction, etc. These extremely important processes do require a fair bit of power, so again, a nuclear power source does make a lot of sense.
Maintaining life support systems, too, is likely to be an open-ended issue. The usual theory is simple enough – Have a power system which can deliver more than the predicted needs, just to be safe. If something breaks down, or there’s some sort of sudden demand for power for survival systems, you have the extra power available. It’s a must.
This is also why other, alternative power sources and systems are inevitable on Mars. Failsafes and backup systems are common sense. The Mars mission must have access to multiple power sources, just in case. The nuclear reactor can power creation of these systems onsite.
Hydrogen power, for example, is great, and cheap, and easy to obtain, but these systems, like any power system, incur a cost of creation and starting up energy usage. Add the transport requirements to the issues, and a small, reliable system has to be better than any bulky, if less risky or controversial, system. The arguments for the nuclear reactor are all valid and all practical.
Nukes in space? Unavoidable, and necessary.
Sounds idyllic, so far, doesn’t it? The problems are likely to be principles, rather than practice. You can almost hear the “No nukes in space!” response already. I’m about as green as you can get. Even so, I have to say the usual anti-nuclear knee jerks are getting more than a bit old, Chernobyl and Fukushima notwithstanding.
NASA doesn’t really have a choice. This is the ergonomic/economic/rational version of power for Mars. The little nuclear reactor, in fact, is quite an achievement. This thing can’t cause Chernobyls or Fukushimas. You could pick it up with a shovel and secure it in a shielded container in a second. A couple of basic circuit breakers could shut it down before it got dangerous. Safer operation is also obviously another major obstacle overcome.
In a saner world with a more rational and less maniacal relationship with money and safety issues, nuclear power would be a safe, rationally-arguable thing. In this world, I’m expecting a conspiracy theory stating that nano-nuclear reactors are a stealthy attempt to promote nuclear power.
There IS a bottom line to nuclear power in space, and it’s unequivocal:
Nuclear power can deliver the sort of power needed for economically viable space travel. Even further projections of electromagnetic power for space travel, like Star Trek, (see NASA’s take on Star Trek tech, very interesting) start from these very basic power requirements, and evolve in to more advanced power systems.
Chemical power can’t do that. It also can’t deliver the power for space travel efficiency required for longer missions. Today’s rockets barely achieve a payload of 10%, and more often, 5%. That’s nothing like economical. If it takes 100 tons of power to deliver 10 tons of payload, it’s a losing equation. It also means 10 missions, with costs, to deliver that 100%.
That’s neither sustainable nor safe, nor realistic if anyone needs a lot of payload in a hurry. Chemical power can only do so much, and even at its most efficient, it’s not enough. Put it this way – It’s pedal power vs turbo power. No contest.
The strategic position of using nuclear power in space
Another, less obvious to some, issue is that China and other space exploring nations won’t hesitate to use nuclear power for missions and core drive technologies. China has been working on an old US idea for an early electromagnetic space drive. More power means more viability, more range, and more capacity on missions. No-brainer? Yes.
There’s no reason to believe China or anyone else will suddenly have a fit of impractical logic and refuse to use the obvious best power sources. Nuclear power is coming to space, whether anyone likes it or not.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
More about NASA, Mars landing, nuclear reactor for Mars mission, China electromagnetic space drive, space exploration payload economics
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