Saturday, October 13, 2007

NASA To Accelerate Space Nuclear Power

Aviation Week & Space Technology reports that NASA has decided to aggressively increase its use of nuclear power sources in planetary missions.

"NASA's objective will be to use nuclear power much more frequently to open previously isolated areas of the solar system for robotic exploration as early as 2013, Aviation Week reports. NASA is moving quickly to make space nuclear power, and eventually nuclear propulsion, an inherent design element in near term, medium cost planetary missions."


"NASA's objective will be to use nuclear power much more frequently to open previously isolated areas of the solar system for robotic exploration as early as 2013, Aviation Week reports. NASA is moving quickly to make space nuclear power, and eventually nuclear propulsion, an inherent design element in near term, medium cost planetary missions."

The article notes that progress in developing the new closed loop Stirling-cycle nuclear power cells being jointly developed by the Department of Energy and NASA, -- which are four times more powerful than current radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) used in space probes -- is facilitating this step.

I recognize that some will find this -- or any use of nuclear power -- to be a controversial decision. It is also clear that some critics will never be satisfied with the the safety of any nuclear power source regardless of where it is intended to be used. However, extensive testing of RTGs and long and successful experience with their use in space has shown these nuclear power sources to be extremely reliable and safe under even the most extreme circumstances.

I am very pleased that NASA has decided to take an aggressive step forward in the use of nuclear power in our space probes. Although I am a strong supporter of solar power, it is clear that we must equip our new deep planetary exploration probes with nuclear power sources to enable them to run more powerful -- and more capable -- instruments, computers, and communication devices that will require far more energy than solar cells can reliably provide as we move out further away from the sun. Improvements in the power and efficiency of these new RTG's, such as the Stirling cycle systems, should provide dramatic improvements in the power and efficiency of these systems allowing a wide range of robust capabilities to be added to our planetary exploration probes. This also ties in very nicely with the advances in Ion propulsion which have been made -- as demonstrated in the current Dawn Mission -- which could provide an ideal source of propulsion for planetary probes if coupled with an improved and reliable power source such as a Stirling Cycle system. Good move!

The next move needs to be action to renew funding for a fast track program to produce a workable nuclear propulsion suitable for manned missions and unmanned heavy cargo exploration support missions (e.g. supporting lunar bases or Mars exploration.) This is what we need give some serious oomph to our plans to explore and settle the Moon, Mars and destinations further out in the solar system. Once we get beyond the Earth/Moon system, conventional chemical rockets are simply not going to be good enough to permit us to safely and effectively expand the effective range of human exploration to Mars, or beyond, except for the one or two early landings. Even those would be much safer for the astronauts with faster and more flexible nuclear propulsion options. Certainly no serious long range human presence on Mars will be possible without this technology. This is the path we must travel if we are to succeed in becoming a space faring civilization.

Read this article:

Glenn Research Center Presentation on Stirling Systems -- Presented at the NASA Science Technology Conference, Session D2 – Space Power on June 18, 2007 by Richard K. Shaltens Chief, Thermal Energy Conversion Branch and Wayne A. Wong ASC Project Manager.

Article discussing the DOE and NASA collaboration in development of the Stirling Radioisotope Generator.

Monday, October 1, 2007


Why a new blog on space exploration? I realize that you may think that you need another blog like you need another hole in your head. That said, my intention is to create a forum where we can discuss -- constructively -- developments and trends that will lead to a more rapid and more effective human expansion into our solar system and perhaps one day beyond. This is a pivotal time in human history and an extremely exciting time in manned space exploration. I believe we are on the brink of a series of developments -- technological, economic, and political -- that will lay the foundation for the space faring civilization that so many of us hope for and expect. It is coming, and I hope we will all live to see it and -- with a little luck -- be able to participate in it.

But before we can get to that "promised land" there are big obstacles to overcome -- some of which are man made. The political consensus in favor of space exploration -- if it exists at all -- is very fragile and the support for human exploration is even more tenuous. Far too much of the energy and discussion on these topics among space supporters has, in my view, been expressed in terms that focus on demands that NASA (and the US) pursue a particular optimum/ideal strategy or technology and, where that does not occur, condemns in the strongest possible terms anything and anybody that deviates from that ideal. This confusion and dissent is, of course, manna from heaven for opponents of the space program. I can't think of a more sure-fire way to completely derail space exploration in general, and human space fight in particular, than for space advocates to continue to pursue this divisive and self-destructive behavior.

On this blog at least, I hope we can avoid dead end arguments over the adequacy of the Ares I booster and the relative merits of the Direct 2.0 alternative. These are arguments that resolve nothing until better information becomes available. Clearly there are passionate advocates for alternatives to the course that NASA has selected, but only time will tell whether the current Ares design will be able to accomplish the mission it has been designed for or whether it will need to be abandoned in favor of an alternative approach. In the mean time, happily, there are many exciting developments to consider that have nothing to do with that controversy and which could have an even more profound impact on the course and progress of our preparations to return to the Moon and move beyond the narrow confines of low earth orbit.

I am no scientist or engineer, and some may think that is an automatic disqualification when it comes to discussing these matters. However, it isn't on this blog. I don't think you need technical credentials to have an interest in these topics or to make an intelligent and/or insightful contribution to a discussion of these issues and that is the presumption we will be operating under from here on out.

But again, welcome.