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Moon Power

India Mulls Using Nuclear Power For Its Chandrayaan-2 Mission To the Moon 93

MarkWhittington writes: India is preparing its second mission to the moon, the Chandrayaan-2, as Space Insider noted. The mission will consist or an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. It will be launched on an Indian-built Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) in late 2017 or early 2018. Defense Daily reported that officials at the Indian Space Research Organization are mulling making the lunar mission nuclear powered, presumably with plutonium-fueled radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). RTGs use the heat of the decaying fuel to create electricity. Both the American and the Soviet space programs have used RTGs in their various spacecraft, the most recent one being the New Horizons space probe that recently flew past Pluto.
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India Mulls Using Nuclear Power For Its Chandrayaan-2 Mission To the Moon

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  • Unless they have a ZPM - in that case, they'd be stupid to opt for nuclear.

    • The problem with ZedPMs is that they have an annoying tendency to run out of power right when you need them the most. And you can never find a convenient replacement when you need one. It's the battery from hell.

      • The problem with ZedPMs ...

        While some Commonwealth countries (like Canada) do pronounce the letter Z as "zed", I'm pretty sure they don't write it down as three letters.

  • Apparently making sure HTML tags are formatted correctly is too difficult for the "editors" around here...
  • 238Pu? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Rei ( 128717 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2015 @04:08AM (#50523647) Homepage

    Does India actually have a stockpile of 238Pu? If not then where are they supposed to get it in two years? It's not like the world is awash in the stuff, and it takes time to set up a program and make it.

    Honestly, Chandrayaan-2 is only a near-Earth mission, and not a super-long one - they don't need a long half-life element like 238Pu. Dirt-cheap 90Sr probably makes more sense, it's a widely available waste product. Or if India really wanted to impress the world, they'd make an actual nuclear reactor for space missions, not just an RTG, and offer to make them for sale to other countries. Russia made a few of them near the end of the Cold War (TOPAZ), but it's anything but off-the-shelf technology today. Another option to do something actually noteworthy would be to make a stirling RTG and leave on the moon, racking up operational hours in a space environment to demonstrate its reliability. A flight-tested stirling RTG would also be something that the west doesn't have.

    • by edjs ( 1043612 )

      The use of "presumably" makes me think the Examiner reporter is speculating (pulling that plutonium out of his ass). The other articles do not mention plutonium, just that it'll be non-fission nuclear power.

      • just that it'll be non-fission nuclear power.

        So they will be using Fusion? Why not just send solar panels up and use the existing fusion power plant in the sky?

        FYI, RTGs run on fission, so saying non-fission nuclear power only leaves fusion as an option.

        • Solar doesn't work so well in a crater at the pole and in permanent darkness. The other problem is that it will be very cold there, small extra RTGs are very useful for helping to keep things warm.

    • by Sique ( 173459 )
      RTGs have been mass produced in the former Soviet Union since the 1960ies, and they were often used as power source in beacons in uninhabited regions - now often in a detoriated state, partly plundered and dismantled. There are estimates of about 1000 devices being deployed, and many of them in undocumented places.
      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        Yes, 90Sr RTGs. Which is why I said it's much more suitable. It's cheap (by nuclear standards) and abundant - it's a waste product, not a manufactured product like 238Pu.

        • by Sique ( 173459 )
          For terrestric applications, and where cost beats weight, 90Sr RTGs are preferable compared to 238Pu. But from an efficiency point of view, 90Sr has a very weak decay energy resulting in less than 0.5 Watts per gram energy density. For a spatial payload, you want a higher density, and you want minimal shielding requirements. Thus 238Pu, were a 2.5 mm lead shielding is sufficient, and the power density of 0.54 Watt per gram is still reasonable.
          • I don't get your point at all, 238Pu has an energy density of 0.5 W/g and 90Sr has 0.536 W/g so that means it gives off a bit more energy per gram than Plutonium. Both elements are beta emitters so should have the same shielding requirements. Both have been flight-proven in RTGs.
            • by Sique ( 173459 )
              According to my data, 238Pu has 0.54 W/g, while 90Sr has only 0.46 W/g. And 238Pu has extremely low gamma and neutron emission levels (mostly from spontaneous fission), and it is an alpha emitter, which is advantageous for shielding. 90Sr is a beta emitter with higher gamma emission, which requires much more shielding.

              Thus, 238Pu is the most used RTG fuel, not only for spatial payloads.

              • I have a picture of a Pu238 battery from a pacemaker. The shielding looks miniscule - and that's for a battery that supposed to sit for 30 years or more inside a human chest. That low gamma signature is very useful..

    • It's a by-product of making plutonium for nuclear weapons, so it's probable they have some even if just enough for a couple high profile space missions.
      No idea about their program but they did set off plutonium bombs in 1998 (one thermonuclear) so they might have made some in the 90s or 00s.

      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        No, it's not a byproduct of making plutonium for nuclear weapons. See above.

    • Does India actually have a stockpile of 238Pu?

      They'll run to Costco for some when they need it. J/K; they've got zero access to the stuff, which is why they're designing an RTG that requires it. ;)

      • by slew ( 2918 )

        Does India actually have a stockpile of 238Pu?

        They'll run to Costco for some when they need it. J/K; they've got zero access to the stuff, which is why they're designing an RTG that requires it. ;)

        Don't be silly, they should just promise to build a bomb for some Libyans and take their plutonium and, in turn, give them a shoddy bomb casing full of used pinball machine parts.

    • Honestly, Chandrayaan-2 is only a near-Earth mission, and not a super-long one - they don't need a long half-life element like 238Pu. Dirt-cheap 90Sr probably makes more sense, it's a widely available waste product.

      Why would using a material that has half the energy density (thus requiring RTG's twice the size and weight) make any sense in an application that's both volume and weight limited?

    • by fizzup ( 788545 )

      210Po is probably more likely than 90Sr because of the energy density problem they are going to need to solve.

  • Does this kind of thinking mark the passing of the baton to the 'developing' nations of India and friends?

    Seems they've gotten their own irrational fear of nuclear power under some measure of control - how long until the West collectively understands that our failure to follow suit when it comes to space development will ultimately cost us our lead?

    I may well be wrong but at this stage in our development I see chemical rockets as a means of orbital insertion and little more. If we intend to explore, we need

    • Seems they've gotten their own irrational fear of nuclear power under some measure of control

      Call me when they've gotten their indoor plumbing situation under some measure of control.

      • And how is that relevant? Do you think that every citizen in India is now doing space research? Or do you think the country should suspend all research and any semblance of forward planning and just build toilets? For crying out loud - every time there is an article about India on Slashdot, some one comments about toilets. Post anonymous - your bias is showing.
        • Or do you think the country should suspend all research and any semblance of forward planning and just build toilets?

          I certainly do think the basic hygiene and welfare of the average Indian should be improved to approximately mid-twentieth century standards before the nation embarks on any flashy space exploration, but of course that would be much more difficult and involve enfranchising people and stamping out the rampant corruption. This is not the same as developed countries doing space exploration before they've cured cancer, we're talking about people living in chronic, primitive poverty. If you don't like people men

          • You don't understand anything about economics do you. The underlying reason India is funding its space program is to boost its technology economy. What its doing is essential its future economy, the power to compete is the basis for increasing wealth, which will hopefully ultimately lead to everyone having toilets. India is competing with China.
            Try to build your whole economy on building toilets and you will end up in one.

    • I can't think of a reason to use RTGs for moon exploration. The weight of solar panels and batteries for a probe would be less than an RTG at this distance from the sun. There is a reason the ISS uses solar for power, and it isn't irrational fear. There is a reason New Horizons used an RTG, it was the better option at that distance from the sun.

      • by matfud ( 464184 )

        On the moon you get two weeks of night (unless you are at the poles)

        • I missed that the RTG was for a lander, I thought it was for the orbiter which made no sense. I retract my earlier question :)

        • This mission is to the inside of a polar crater - the darkness is permanent.

          • by matfud ( 464184 )

            One of the objectives may be to look for frozen H2O. If so they may need to venture into permanent shadow for longer than batteries would be feasible. If they don't need to venture far into permanent shadow then certain areas of craters on the moon have far less than 2 weeks of night and they could recharge using solar.

            • In this case though nuclear or at least nuclear assistance makes far more sense than pure solar. Nuclear RTG's generate waste heat and this helps keep the whole machine warm - important when the Luna night is about 14 days long and temperatures can fall to -170 C.

  • Moon orbit - why? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by spiritplumber ( 1944222 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2015 @04:39AM (#50523701) Homepage
    We're still at 1AU or thereabouts, isn't it better to use solar panels and save the non-renewable Pu for past-Mars-orbit missions where solar panels won't work?
    • Please don't use non-renewable to take the meaning that we're running out Pu. The only thing we've run out of is willpower.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Willpower is a renewable resource.

    • by nojayuk ( 567177 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2015 @07:42AM (#50524169)

      The Sun isn't visible on any given point on the Lunar surface for two weeks every month and it gets cold at "night". An RTG-powered lander and rover can stay operational in such circumstances and the excess heat from the RTG can stop the electronics, motors, batteries etc. from freezing up and failing. The solar-only solution would require lots and lots of PV panels plus enough battery storage to, at the minimum, warm the lander/rover and prevent damage to the instruments and systems. That's a lot of extra mass to carry compared to a small RTG that can provide power and heat.

      • There are a couple of locations on the rims of craters on the lunar poles that receive sunlight nearly all of the time.

        http://www.airspacemag.com/dai... [airspacemag.com]

        • There are a couple of locations on the rims of craters on the lunar poles that receive sunlight nearly all of the time.

          http://www.airspacemag.com/dai... [airspacemag.com]

          Yes, but scientists would like to be able to explore the other 99.99% of the moon's surface which, unfortunately, has a night that lasts for 2 weeks. They need a way to keep the lander's electronics warm through those times.

    • The RTG is not for the moon orbiter, it's for the lander. The lander needs to be able to stay warm and survive a night that lasts for half a month.
    • We're still at 1AU or thereabouts, isn't it better to use solar panels and save the non-renewable Pu for past-Mars-orbit missions where solar panels won't work?

      Well, there's two possibilities here. The first is that they're using this mission as a technology demonstrator, proof of concept, or prototype - that they can actually build, deploy, and operate such a thing. The second is that the RTGs are intended for the lander and/or rover - which are in darkness two weeks out of every four. (Indian enginee

  • I would say the most recent RTG craft is the Curiosity Rover, launched in 2011. Where as the "New Horizons" was launched way back in 2006... and only recently reached its goal. Not the most recent nuclear craft to fly though.
  • by sociocapitalist ( 2471722 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2015 @05:31AM (#50523769)

    And the fallout from one of these exploding in the air would be...?

    • by TAz00 ( 1060066 )
      Neglible, hardend casing survives the heat of reentry, and dumps it in the ocean. Don't worry about that tho, check out the number of nuclear reactors launched into space instead :)
    • "And the fallout from one of these exploding in the air would be...?"

      This has already happened, so nothing.

    • Zero. Nuclear RTG's are generally designed to survive the rocket exploding and even the fall from orbital height..

  • How apropos that the Americans used plutonium to fly past Pluto!
  • There goes $1 billion down the drain to satisfy their ego.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/ind... [dailymail.co.uk]

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