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Mars NASA Power Space Science Technology

NASA Seeks Nuclear Power For Mars (scientificamerican.com) 165

New submitter joshtops shares a report from Scientific American: As NASA makes plans to one day send humans to Mars, one of the key technical gaps the agency is working to fill is how to provide enough power on the Red Planet's surface for fuel production, habitats and other equipment. One option: small nuclear fission reactors, which work by splitting uranium atoms to generate heat, which is then converted into electric power. NASA's technology development branch has been funding a project called Kilopower for three years, with the aim of demonstrating the system at the Nevada National Security Site near Las Vegas. Testing is due to start in September and end in January 2018. The last time NASA tested a fission reactor was during the 1960s' Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power, or SNAP, which developed two types of nuclear power systems. The first system -- radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs -- taps heat released from the natural decay of a radioactive element, such as plutonium. RTGs have powered dozens of space probes over the years, including the Curiosity rover currently exploring Mars. The second technology developed under SNAP was an atom-splitting fission reactor. SNAP-10A was the first -- and so far, only -- U.S. nuclear power plant to operate in space. Launched on April 3, 1965, SNAP-10A operated for 43 days, producing 500 watts of electrical power, before an unrelated equipment failure ended the demonstration. The spacecraft remains in Earth orbit.
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NASA Seeks Nuclear Power For Mars

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  • Stock It Up (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mentil ( 1748130 ) on Thursday July 06, 2017 @03:49AM (#54754595)

    One of the few upsides of a manned mission to Mars is that we can send all the infrastructure there before the trigger is pulled to lift any humans off of Earth. We can make sure it arrives safely, and works, rather than having to send it on the same trip as the astronauts. Even if the solar cells, ice purifiers, and hydroponics work at a rate too slow to keep up with human consumption, they could be designed to operate when noone is there, to stockpile enough resources to last the duration of a human visit. Food silos, batteries, water tanks, and a habitat can be sent and filled up beforehand. Assuming everything but the seeds were sterilized, I wonder if the resultant food could be preserved indefinitely on Mars; ya know, until the humans show up and spread their microbiome everywhere.

    If a colony is dependent on regular shipments of fissile material, that could cause problems, particularly if a shipment blows up/gets its launch delayed, or if the colony desires independence. Hawking et al suggest that we should get a Mars colony in part so that we wouldn't be doomed by a third world war; however, if said colony belonged to one of the major world powers, it's much more likely to be targeted. China already has tested weapons that can destroy satellites, I wouldn't put it past them to use a weapon that would destroy their enemy's Mars colony.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      What military value would a civilian Mars colony have to expend the huge resources necessary to destroy it?

    • If robotics were sufficiently advanced to build greenhouses and farm food on Mars, what would the purpose of sending humans? Surely, for that level of complexity, we could skip the complex building of habitats and just send a robot to do {whatever} the task that have in mind for humans.
      • If robotics were sufficiently advanced to build greenhouses and farm food on Mars, what would the purpose of sending humans?

        Robots already have sufficient complexity to do that job. To be fair, we already have arguments over whether we should send humans, so you may have a point there. I, for one, would like to send robots and build a base with them before I set foot on the planet, if I were making the plans. I'd much rather have a nice place to sleep all set up for me than have to sleep in my car, so to speak.

        Seriously, what part of the job of building a greenhouse and growing crops do we imagine a robot can't do? Especially gi

      • If robotics were sufficiently advanced to build greenhouses and farm food on Mars, what would the purpose of sending humans? Surely, for that level of complexity, we could skip the complex building of habitats and just send a robot to do {whatever} the task that have in mind for humans.

        Get your girlfriend/wife a really good vibrator then re-think that question. :-)

    • It will never happen. At least not for a very very very long time. We have many places on earth that are not possible to be independent right now that are magnitudes easier and more habitable.

      If they really want to play around, they should try it here on earth first as a proof of concept, preferably long term. The whole failed biodome experiment being a good example. Heck, put in the the Arctic or Antarctic and see how it fairs, or even just a very harsh remote region. Probably also be magnitudes cheaper to

      • A Mars colony doesn't have to be a closed system like BioDome (failed) or the Soviet equivalent BIOS-3 (successful). Mars has a bunch of natural resources that make it less challenging, or more accurately challenging in a different way, than living in space.

    • It will take VERY little to destroy an initial colony. The first part of such an undertaking would be quite frail on it's initial setup as ability to carry supplies would be limited and it is unknown if you could mine materials from the planet (as far as we know in the public). If we ever get to Mars (and I think there is room for serious doubt with all the unknowns not being talked about publicaly including the effects of our nuclear power plants/waste on Mars' atmosphere), given mutual interest (especiall
    • I don't do this often, but noone isn't a word. I keep seeing people who don't understand how spellcheck works. Even autocorrect tries to fix it.

      • by mentil ( 1748130 )

        It's a perfectly cromulent word. Seriously though, I like how it looks more than the technically-correct usages, which irk me as much as seeing 'him/her'.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Why would NASA put effort into Uranium reactors when Thorium is so much more promising?

    It doesn't get more "do-over" than an entire fucking planet. If you really must do something nuclear on it, why use the old shit?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Uranium works, has been demonstrated in space many times, and has a bunch of people who understand reactor design. Thoriuem is a pie in the sky idea that hasn't been demonstrated in proudction, hasn't been used commercially, and doesn't have any experts in reactor design. Oh yeah, its harder to find, extract, process, enrich, use and dispose of, and its resistance to nuclear meltdown doesn't have the same value in space.

    • NASA isn't a leader (anymore), they ride on the coat-tails of industry and the military. There has been trillions of dollars of development in the Uranium infrastructure, replicating that for Thorium would be... less efficient than using the existing systems.

    • Why would NASA put effort into Uranium reactors when Thorium is so much more promising? It doesn't get more "do-over" than an entire fucking planet.

      Because thorium designs have to be developed and proven out on Earth first. The ORNL work was just a proof of concept, not an operating commercial reactor.

  • ... for a lot of power situations, not just space. However the 60s CND hippie generation have managed to turn it into a bogieman (not helped of course by Chernobyl caused by a lack of training and maintenance on a reactor that was a poor design to start with). Sadly the younger generation seems to have swallowed this meme wholesale without actually checking the facts (eg France has generated around 50% of its power from nuclear without serious incident since the 1960s). So good luck to Nasa getting nuclear

    • by Kergan ( 780543 )

      The bigger issue isn't the possibility of and potential costs of nuclear incidents. Rather, it is nuclear waste management.

      As a power source it's competitive if you only factor in power production and rudimentary waste management like we're doing now. But that completely falls apart if you consider the future costs of storing the nuclear waste over hundreds of thousands or millions of years.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Viol8 ( 599362 )

        Where do you think Uranium comes from in the first place, the magic nuclear tree? It comes out of the ground. There is zero reason not to put the spent fuel back into it.

        • by Kergan ( 780543 )

          You need to enrich the stuff for it to be useful in a reactor (or for that matter, a weapon). You can't just shove the result back into the ground and expect it to be as benign as the naturally occurring stuff. Not to mention Plutonium and other nuclear waste, which you don't want anywhere near a water supply.

      • Who's factoring in the waste management costs of coal? Fly ash piles, atmospheric distribution of mercury and other fun stuff, destruction of landscapes for strip mines... someday people will tally up these costs and probably establish that fossil fuels are a zero-sum game, when you actually value the entire planet.

        • Don't ignore the radioactive bits of coal ash. A coal plant literally releases more radiation than operating a nuclear plant.
      • Half-life, you surely heard of that. There is no need to store any nuclear waste for hundreds of thousands or millions of years.

        • But OH NOES BIG NUMBER!!!!

          That is exactly what these greenie lefties are responding to. They have no idea what any of it means, so the magnitude of the numbers is what riles them up.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        "Nuclear waste" is a bit of a misnomer, from what I understand a VAST majority (I think like 95%) of what we term as nuclear waste is still perfectly usable fuel, it is simply contaminated with highly radioactive components. Those components can be removed via reprocessing, which most countries do. Once that is done the actual waste is far more compact and radioactive for far less time. The US however sabotaged its own reprocessing program by banning it back in the 70s, and then wrapping the industry in

      • by Ranbot ( 2648297 )

        The bigger issue... is nuclear waste management. ...completely falls apart if you consider the future costs of storing the nuclear waste over hundreds of thousands or millions of years.

        Your assumption that a nuclear waste management solution today must be essentially eternally effective is incorrect. Realistically, we only need an interim solution to contain nuclear waste until a foreseeable time when technology, resources, and knowledge advances to handle the waste more effectively. There are similar waste management examples in use too.... for example lead based paint and asbestos in buildings is dangerous to occupants, but an acceptable remedy is sealing/encapsulating it in the buildin

    • Nice straw man you've got there. Did it take long to build?

    • You can't do anything significant and public without idiots demonstrating at the gates.

      What matters is whether or not the politicians who control the budget can (and choose to) hold office without placating them.

    • "However the 60s CND hippie generation have managed to turn it into a bogieman (not helped of course by Chernobyl..."

      But the most wondrous thing about space from a human culture standpoint is that there are no liberals up there to prevent us from diverting asteroids, operating nuclear reactors, and using bioengineering to modify humanity itself for improved survival in non-terrestrial environments.

  • We already have relatively small pressurized water reactors. It seems like a reactor that could power a submarine would be the right size for a small colony of people. Is that still too physically large, or would the problem be the quantity of water/coolant required for operation? Maybe they could figure out a way to include the human waste processing function in the reactor system? i.e. cool the reactor by peeing on it.

    • We already have relatively small pressurized water reactors.

      Not a grand idea when you cannot have people monitoring it onsite 24/7 who are able to effect repairs. Requires high pressure piping and containment (heavy and $$) which increases the problems if there is a loss of coolant incident (not a trivial consideration). Lots of problematic failure modes not easily reconciled to space travel. Plus there is the fact that you need water which Mars has but not in abundance or easily accessible. You don't want to ship the water there

      It seems like a reactor that could power a submarine would be the right size for a small colony of people.

      Water as a coolant works great on

  • by Lost Penguin ( 636359 ) on Thursday July 06, 2017 @07:25AM (#54755107) Homepage
    http://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/24/business/patents-nuclear-battery-converts-reactor-waste-products.html

    http://www.rexresearch.com/nucell/nucell.htm

    http://autoweek.com/article/car-news/strange-life-and-stranger-death-paul-brown-case-another-smart-guy-doing-dumb-thing
    • by necro81 ( 917438 )
      That's interesting stuff. However - the patent is from 1989, and would have expired nearly a decade ago. There are plenty of nuclear boosters with deep pockets, including Bill Gates, that would love to create nuclear batteries that burned waste products. So why haven't we seen this? Is it just The Man keeping us on oil forever, or is it that the technology just isn't workable?
      • It's not the man; it's the paperwork. Literally half of the cost of building a new reactor (even a test reactor) goes to regulatory approvals.

        My state is home to the Watts Bar Nuclear Generating Station. Construction started on this facility in 1973, and the first reactor was completed in 1996. The second reactor didn't come online until 2016, and it was the first new power-generation reactor to light up in 20 years.

  • Hmm, doing what amounts to a controlled crash (possibly uncontrolled) on Mars with a fission reactor. What could possibly go wrong?

    • If a fission reactor crashes on Mars, presumably the planet itself will break into a group of extremely radioactive fireballs which will then collide with Earth and kill us all. Is that what the 70 years of nuclear paranoia sci-fi has you thinking?

      • If a fission reactor crashes on Mars, presumably the planet itself will break into a group of extremely radioactive fireballs which will then collide with Earth and kill us all. Is that what the 70 years of nuclear paranoia sci-fi has you thinking?

        Well, and Hollywood. Everything we know about radioactive materials, we learned from Hollywood. If a radioactive spider bites you, you become super strong and can cling to the ceiling with cilia in your hands and toes!

    • A small area of the planet being radioactive. But that's ok, with no life as we know it, not much weather to blow stuff around, and lots of land mass, we've got plenty of chances at another try.

      • A small area of the planet being radioactive. But that's ok, with no life as we know it, not much weather to blow stuff around, and lots of land mass, we've got plenty of chances at another try.

        "Not much weather"? You mean except for the global dust storms [nasa.gov] that could distribute fallout far and wide? With dust that sticks to everything like styrofoam peanuts?

  • Misdirection (Score:3, Interesting)

    by VorpalRodent ( 964940 ) on Thursday July 06, 2017 @08:20AM (#54755281)

    Here's my conspiracy theory.

    While they may see potential value for Mars, I see this as a way to acclimatize people to the idea that nuclear is a safe option. Where NASA is in the industry and previous accidents aside, the American public, as a whole, still regards NASA as being the same, awesome NASA that it was in the 50s.

    That being the case, if this can bring nuclear into the public consciousness as something that's good and safe and useful, then it won't be about Mars, it will be about how we can "leverage what was learned from developing reactors usable in the harsh Martian landscape for use safely at home".

    • Re:Misdirection (Score:4, Insightful)

      by UnknowingFool ( 672806 ) on Thursday July 06, 2017 @09:41AM (#54755781)

      While they may see potential value for Mars, I see this as a way to acclimatize people to the idea that nuclear is a safe option.

      So please tell me what other options does NASA have for power initially? Solar which can't provide all the amount of energy necessary? Fossil fuels because Mars is full of oil? Wind energy is minimal and you have to send/assemble extremely large wind mills. Geo-theormal is good for long term; however, it requires construction. Right now solar and nuclear are not the "safe" options. They are the best options for initial colonization.

      Where NASA is in the industry and previous accidents aside, the American public, as a whole, still regards NASA as being the same, awesome NASA that it was in the 50s.

      Doesn't change the fact that nuclear and solar are the best option for the initial settlement for Mars.

      • Solar on Mars can definitely provide all the energy you need, and at much better power-to-weight ratios to boot (and without moving parts to maintain!). You don't get fossil fuels but given the CO2 everywhere around, you might be able to use spare power to generate carbon monoxide fuel for vehicles, rockets and night storage.
  • We've had workable fusion power plants that could fit into a walk-in closet for a few years now.

    They mostly are being used in military activities.

    Fission is so last decade.

    • Too late.

      The 'the most-retarded-/. poster award for the year.' award was already given out upthread.

  • I'm late to the party with this, but Atomic Energy Canada designed an Nuclear Battery (self contained low maintenance uranium reactor) that would output 2400 kW (thermal) or 600 kW (electric).

    Might be a starting point for a colony system.

    Nuclear Battery (pdf) [nuclearfaq.ca]

  • and you cannot produce 1 Watt. They probably meant something like 500 Wh or similiar.

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