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Mars Moon Power Science

Developing Nuclear Power Plant Tech For the Moon and Mars 273

With his first accepted Slashdot submission, Zandamesh sends this excerpt from ZDNet: "On earth, nuclear reactors are under attack because of concerns over damage caused by natural disasters. In space, however, nuclear technology may get a new lease on life. Plans for the first nuclear power plant for the production of electricity to be used by manned or unmanned bases on the Moon, Mars and other planets have been unveiled at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society. 'The reactor itself may be about 1 ½ feet wide by 2 ½ feet high, about the size of a carry-on suitcase. There are no cooling towers. ... The team is scheduled to build a technology demonstration unit in 2012."
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Developing Nuclear Power Plant Tech For the Moon and Mars

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  • Protesters (Score:4, Insightful)

    by chill ( 34294 ) on Monday August 29, 2011 @10:20AM (#37241188) Journal

    While possibly a good idea, be prepared for the protesters. Specifically the group that complains every time a rocket blasts off carrying fissile material. What if it explodes on launch?

    Also, expect a few wingnuts who complain about ruining the pristine landscape of the moon.

    • by geogob ( 569250 )

      What if it explodes on launch?

      Not that this ever happens []...

      • Re:Protesters (Score:5, Insightful)

        by chill ( 34294 ) on Monday August 29, 2011 @10:37AM (#37241406) Journal

        A more accurate link would have been this [].

        I'm not arguing for complete negligence, but rather that this is an engineering issue that can be solved.

      • Re:Protesters (Score:5, Informative)

        by LWATCDR ( 28044 ) on Monday August 29, 2011 @10:53AM (#37241634) Homepage Journal

        Very little. Uranium is actually natural. They will not "turn on" the reactor until it is far from earth. You can stand next to uranium all day long and it will not hurt you. The main problem is when it decays it produced Radon gas "again this is natural" which can cause lung cancer. So this as actually safer than an RTG and really very safe. The thing is that people will yell in fear first and then ignore research. BTW.
        I do not work for NASA or any Aerospace firm and the launch pad is pretty near my home so it is sort of in my back yard so I have ZERO interest in down playing any danger.

      • FYI we already have a reactor in space. []

    • The Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity Rover) [] is powered by a RTEG []. No reason we couldn't design a new, more efficient, version for use on the Moon.
      • by Teancum ( 67324 )

        While the concept is related, the reactor is going to offer much more power production per kilogram than an RTG and last longer as well in terms of useful production lifetime.

        It should also be of note that every Apollo mission (except Apollo 11) to the Moon brought up RTGs to power some of the monitoring equipment left behind with the ALSEP [] experiments. Nuclear devices wouldn't even be something new on the Moon.

        I knew of a couple of folks working with the Google Lunar X-Prize competition who had strongly c

    • by toastar ( 573882 )
      Dumb Question time:

      Would a real controlled fission reaction work or mars? How about the moon?
      • by chill ( 34294 )

        Physics is the same in both those places as here on Earth. Yes, they would work.

      • by Teancum ( 67324 )

        Why would it not work?

        The problems you encounter is that you would have to use something other than water for a moderator, so designs would by necessity be a little different. You also can't build a plant with the theory of using tons of concrete can act as a shield, as limestone-based concrete is not going to be cheap nor easy to get to the Moon. So instead, you use local materials which do essentially the same thing. This reactor is to be partially buried beneath the surface of the Moon (a bulldozer pu

    • While possibly a good idea, be prepared for the protesters. Specifically the group that complains every time a rocket blasts off carrying fissile material.

      The number of such protesters has been steadily decreasing over time and is now essentially zero. Heck, Curiosity is within a few weeks of launching and nobody (of those who protest, file lawsuits, etc...) seems to have even noticed.

    • On why more of the stuff is not being sent off world. If you are not in complete denial about how bad Fukushima is, then the prospect of doubling the number of reactors, many of which will be controlled by the likes of India and China, makes you a bit pessimistic about life on Earth.

      Might as well use the same technology to place some flags on the outskirts of the solar system that can be discovered by other civilizations and warn them not to go near the radioactive hell hole, or what will be left of it,
  • by mfh ( 56 )

    If they would just cover Mars where the Sun shines, with Solar power facilities, they would generate as much energy, if not more, and they wouldn't have to worry about any messy nuclear waste or negative press. So the interesting part of this discovery is that back in the 1950's when there were all the sci-fi movies about Martians attacking us and sending probes up our you-know-whats, the reality is we will be likely sending an army of robots to Mars to do our bidding!

    • by coldfarnorth ( 799174 ) on Monday August 29, 2011 @10:42AM (#37241476)

      That DOES sound easier than sending suitcase sized devices to places where we actually need power.

  • by bigredradio ( 631970 ) on Monday August 29, 2011 @10:28AM (#37241278) Homepage Journal
    So, in case of an accident we remove the possibility of nuclear radiation poisoning, but now we have the threat of General Zod, Ursa, and Non.
  • Yeah, most environmentalists won't care about operating a nuclear reactor on Mars (some will of course. Loonies are loonies), but many (very, very many) will bitch and moan to no end about launching nuclear material on rockets in case they explode. Right now it isn't so much of an issue (because, well, most people don't know we do it and we don't do it often) but if it enters public consciousness you can expect a massive backlash against it, and no set of statistics about how safe the rockets are will stop

  • There's already quite a bit of radiation in space, couldn't that be somehow harvested to provide power?
    • I'm no expert, but I don't believe the amounts are enough to generate any useable amount of power... also you'd have to somehow build antennas of various lengths to capture that radiation.

    • Just like there's alot of heat all around us on earth, which is kinetic energy. Not a physicist, nor an engineer, but I think we have no way to harvest energy unless there is a potential difference between two nearby locations. To get power from a nuclear reactor, for example, you need to use the heat to turn water to steam... However, this would't work if the entire environment around the reactor was already at 2000 degrees, and the water was already superheated steam. Same with a stirling engine, you need
  • I don't see how traditional cooling towers would work for anything in a vacuum, as they're designed as heat exchangers against ambient air, and use convection to draw fresh air in for dumping waste heat into, exhausting it out the top...

    If anything, they'd need to do a geothermal-style ground-loop system, where they drill several boreholes, plumb them with loops, and then fill in the extra space with the regolith they originally bored out. Use the ground as a heatsink for the hot water from the secondary e

    • FTFS:

      There are no cooling towers. ...

      • by TWX ( 665546 )

        Yeah, I got that part. I was marveling that anyone would even reasonably expect cooling towers, AT ALL in a vacuum. Slashdot is a fairly educated crowd, and I'd figure that most readers would know that they wouldn't work.

        • It's from the article, where they discuss how different this reactor is from the public stereotypes of a nuclear reactor.

          (Although as we all know, cooling towers are hardly unique to nuclear reactors.)

    • Isn't it something like -200 degrees F outside of direct sunlight in space? I'm not an engineer, but do you really need anything more than passive cooling of circulating coolant and a big reflector?
      • See above [] and likely below. Space isn't hot or cold, it's vacuum (pretty much). You only have radiative cooling.

  • I was going to post a witty Starcraft reference, but how are we going to *safely* extract and enrich (or ship in a rocket) uranium in outer space?

  • No atmosphere = no natural disasters my ass.
    • Well... Mars, Moon and other planets already have much more radiation than you can add to then with a small nuclear reactor.
  • This is exactly what is needed. Not just for space, but to help restart American innovation.No, lets do more like this.
  • by kaizendojo ( 956951 ) on Monday August 29, 2011 @11:01AM (#37241728)
    A nuke plant the size of a CARRY-ON SUITCASE. I don't see any problems with that getting into the wrong hands...
    • A nuclear reactor isn't a nuclear weapon. It's no more dangerous - and a good deal less covert - than a lead suitcase full of nicked nuclear fuel.

    • A nuke plant the size of a CARRY-ON SUITCASE. I don't see any problems with that getting into the wrong hands...

      Yeah, in the hands of the wrong person it might just allow poor people to have heat, light, refrigeration, filtered water, cooked food, and the Internet without paying a dime to the local energy conglomerate. That absolutely must not be allowed to happen!

  • by 0111 1110 ( 518466 ) on Monday August 29, 2011 @11:02AM (#37241734)

    Before we even think about a permanent lunar settlement we need to think about lunar mining to extract iron, aluminum, copper, and uranium ore.

    Then we need to work on solar (parabolic or fresnel) furnaces to melt the ore and process it into metal. The lack of oxygen will make some of the traditional smelting techniques more difficult however. We may have to live with metals with inferior properties because we have to invent a whole new metallurgy up there.

    Having a working nuclear reactor there in the beginning would make everything a lot easier. I don't know if photovoltaics could supply enough power for things like earth (regolith) moving machinery.

    In the beginning we could limit ourselves to collecting the loose regolith with solar powered bulldozers, backhoes, and more specialized mining equipment. For the heavier minerals underneath we'd have to wait for a higher power density solution.

    • Mining may be the first step, but the material you'd be looking for first is water. Water necessary for life, and can be cracked to produce oxygen for breathing. Once in-situ ice mining is in place and viable, then you can start looking for other materials. The success or failure of every colonizing process in the history of mankind is linked to the success or failure of finding drinking water. Space is no different.
  • I think that we should do some more R&D into using beta- emitters. In particular, if there is a lot of nuclear waste that can provide this power. And heat can be use for local heating. The big issue is that neutrons are emitted and have to be dealt with. However, if this is done, then we are looking at a nice way to provide power for even VASIMR, and perhaps for ships, larger earth movers, etc.
  • You just wait until the space quakes hit, and all that radiation is released, contaminating space with radiation for years to come.

    That said, this is very old news. This type of thing has existed and has been in use for half a century. However these are pretty low powered devices (unless this is supposed to be different), that only produce like 500W of power over a period of 80 years or so. So depending on what you plan on using these for power at these "bases", it is not like they are going to power everyt

    • You're think of RTGs. This is a proper grown-up 40kW reactor, shrunk to the size of a suitcase.

      • The only "numbers" in either article are:

        "...which was a 45 kWt thermal nuclear fission reactor that produced 650 watts using a thermoelectric converter..."

        So the one in 1965 was a 45kWt, but actually produces 650 watts.

        The one on Voyager did 450 watts I believe.

        In any event the article is so lacking in details it is hard to take any of it as credible.

  • The real merit of TFA is it state for the large audience there is no energy source out there strong enough to sustain human life beyond nearer planets. So, we can conclude that old dream to colonize the space beyond the solar system is extincted once and for all, provided a trip to the nearest solar system is a 40000 years journey and even if we can manage to protect the life from the cosmic rays on an hypothetical ship, we still have the energy problem to sustain life, even in hibernation state.

    Also, is th

  • by hackertourist ( 2202674 ) on Monday August 29, 2011 @11:37AM (#37242202)

    TFA is remarkably light on details. The ZDnet article refers to the SNAP-10A satellite, which had a 45 kWt reactor that produced 650 watts of electrical power via thermoelectric converters, which is not much for a device that's about the same size as this new proposal. If they want to produce 40 KWe from a small package, some other technology may be needed.

    • by necro81 ( 917438 )
      Agreed - without any details, it's all just the same "Gosh, nuclear on the Moon has some adsvantages" speculation that's been bandied around since the 1960s.

      The ACS article mentions that the team would be working on a small electric pump for the liquid metal-cooled system. So we know at least that it is not a purely solid state RTG like we've been using for satellites all these years. That implies that there might, might be some innovation taking place here. The power plant could still be using the th
  • This is beginning of something far more important than nuclear power: Microwave Transmission.

  • by wisebabo ( 638845 ) on Monday August 29, 2011 @11:41AM (#37242250) Journal

    No I don't mean did they put one of these on the moon (and certainly not mars, I don't think any of their landers made it).

    No, I mean didn't they have a bunch of high powered satellites in earth orbit that used reactors (NOT just RTGs, they wouldn't produce enough power). I believe they were radar satellites that scanned the oceans looking for American carrier groups to kill. (The U.S. really has a HUGE advantage in its many bases and allies worldwide, this is something that required the soviets to create satellites like this. It is an advantage that will also take the Chinese a very long time, if ever, to match). In fact didn't one of their satellites COSMOS I think it was, crash in Canada spewing plutonium all over the place and costing millions to clean up?

    That said, if the design is sound (the spacecraft malfunctioned not the reactor right?), wouldn't it be easy to adapt their zero-gee design to work on the moo or mars? Should actually be easier, gravity will let convection work and (on mars) the thin atmosphere will help the purely radiative cooling.

  • This is a nearly perfect application for the Thorium-based molten-salt LFTR (Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor) concept.

    LFTRs advantages:

    1. - adapt to load and are self-regulating: the molten-salt blanket around the core expands as heat increases and contracts as heat reduces
    2. - require no high-pressure containment vessel or water cooling
    3. - will auto-shutdown if there is a critical power failure
    4. - use a Uranium/Thorium cycle which consumes 99.9% of the fuel, increasing energy output and reducing waste produc

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