NASA Tests Fission Reactor for Space Flight
One challenge NASA perpetually faces is the task of powering its space craft, along with all of the equipment and sensors on board, and transmitting data across the solar system. Now the space agency and the Department of Energy (DOE) are testing a small, uranium-based reactor that could power small craft, as well as structures that could be built on other planets.
The Demonstration Using Flattop Fissions (DUFF) experiment produced just 24 watts of electricity during the tests conducted by researchers from NASA, National Security Technologies, and Los Alamos National Laboratory. In what was the first space nuclear reactor experiment in the U.S. since 1965, researchers used a heat pipe to cool the reactor and power a Stirling engine. A space craft using the system would be powered with 50 pounds of uranium inside a 12-inch reactor core. A flight system would use several heat pipe modules to generate approximately 1 kilowatt of electricity.
Here’s a description of the heat pipe technology from the Los Alamos announcement:
Heat pipe technology was invented at Los Alamos in 1963. A heat pipe is a sealed tube with an internal fluid that can efficiently transfer heat produced by a reactor with no moving parts. A Stirling engine is a relatively simple closed-loop engine that converts heat energy into electrical power using a pressurized gas to move a piston. Using the two devices in tandem allowed for creation of a simple, reliable electric power supply that can be adapted for space applications.
NASA thinks the technology could also fuel potential power plants on Mars.