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Communications NASA Power Space United States

NASA Successfully Tests New Nuclear Reactor For Future Space Travelers (npr.org) 178

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NPR: NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy say they have successfully tested a new type of nuclear reactor that could one day provide juice to colonies on other worlds. The reactor can power several homes and appears able to operate in harsh environments. The new reactor uses more-conventional uranium fuel. Using a "core" about the size of a paper towel roll, the reactor can turn pistons that can run a generator. The generator can put out about 10 kilowatts of electrical power -- enough to run a few small homes. Scientists believe it could run continuously for a decade or so, making deep space travel a lot simpler. They also gave it a catchy acronym: KRUSTY, which stands for Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling TechnologY.

To see if it actually worked, scientists tested KRUSTY out in the Nevada desert on America's old nuclear test range. They put KRUSTY through its paces, culminating in a 28-hour test at full power. The team also simulated failures in KRUSTY's reactor components to show it wouldn't result in a meltdown on Mars. KRUSTY may find its way onto future space probes. Researchers say they might use an ensemble of four or five of the reactors to power colonies on the moon (which has 14-day nights, when the sun isn't available) or Mars.

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NASA Successfully Tests New Nuclear Reactor For Future Space Travelers

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  • nice power point (Score:4, Interesting)

    by goombah99 ( 560566 ) on Friday May 04, 2018 @09:11AM (#56553220)

    It's nicely at a power point where it could power a small apartment building and recharge all the electric vehicles fully overnight. If it were 30KW it could even power a highway capable SUV. While one might worry about crashes, remember these thermo-nuclear-electric power packs on sattelites are hardened to survive a rocket explosion and hard re-entry.

    • Good idea. Uranium is only $30-40 per pound too. A pound of Uranium would power a car for about a year. The only problem is that the device is larger than a human, but I am sure they can shrink it down to something much smaller. After all, computers used to fill a room and now my wristwatch has more computing power than those did!
      • I'm not really sure how big it is. All the photos show it with large thermal jackets around it. But I suspect those are part of the test harness. Car engines are pretty big too. Especially a big diesel truck.

        • True. You would only need like 3 of them to power a sedan. And maybe 10 to power a diesel truck. You can see from the pictures. The radiators are only about 10 feet in diameter.
          • Remember they are simulating space conditions where you need enormous surface areas to avoid overheating. On earth we don't have that problem. I think the large jackets in one photo, or the large fins in the moon mock-up are there to simulate space conditions and would not be needed for a car.

          • by quenda ( 644621 )

            True. You would only need like 3 of them to power a sedan.

            Actually, you only need one. You don't use stirling engines for direct drive. It would be a series hybrid with battery, so the generator only needs to provide average or cruising power, not peak.

             

            The radiators are only about 10 feet in diameter.

            On earth, we would use conventional air-cooled "radiators", the same as for a petrol car.

          • Now only if we could have somehow solved the problem of moving waste heat away from really hot things in an atmosphere where the ambient air temperature is far below the thing you're trying to cool off...

      • Good idea. Uranium is only $30-40 per pound too. A pound of Uranium would power a car for about a year. The only problem is that the device is larger than a human, but I am sure they can shrink it down to something much smaller. After all, computers used to fill a room and now my wristwatch has more computing power than those did!

        You need enriched uranium - enough to make a critical mass. The 10 KW Kilopower unit for KRUSTY requires 75 kg of weapon-grade U-235 (93%). This is a the better part of a million dollars worth.

        One pound of natural uranium, or pure U-235 for that matter, will not power anything at all. The scaling for nuclear reactors bears no relation to miniaturization of electronics, and the necessary sizes were fixed by physics about 70 years ago and have not changed since.

    • While one might worry about crashes, remember these thermo-nuclear-electric power packs on sattelites are hardened to survive a rocket explosion and hard re-entry

      This reactor much more dangerous than thermo-electric pack. It has moving parts, an actual critical reactor assembly (not passive beta decay like thermoelectric), uses enriched U vs. non-fissiles found in thermo-packs. SUV-crash with one of these on board = mini-Chernobyl/future Superfund site.

      • This shouldn't be a problem. They should just harden them more so they don't release the nuclear material. There is nothing wrong with nuclear reactors in SUVs.
        • No need to harden the reactor. Ship it without the U installed. The U can be in a separate hardened container and installed in the reactor at the destination if the transit is trouble free.
          • Notion here is nuclear reactor in a SUV. So the SUV is the destination. In so much as 'hardening' it takes a couple feet of lead to keep the gammas and ~4 MeV neutrons away - and that is the incident energy of the thing, no matter the size. I don't know about you, about a couple cubic feet of lead (not counting reactor) combined with 30Kw of motive power makes for a good day to walk (you might win that race, too).
            • by drnb ( 2434720 )
              By "hardening" I was referring to the U remaining contained after an explosion and/or crash (launch failure, etc). Basically that keeping a specialized U container from leaking seemed a simpler problem than keeping a fueled reactor from leaking.
              • by TheSync ( 5291 )

                It should be noted that a block of U235 represents a tremendously reduced radiation risk than an RTG (which inherently has crazy "hot" isotopes on launch, because that is how it works).

                Once the reactor has been running for a while, you will get crazy "hot" isotopes, but the theory is not to run the reactor until the probe is far enough away from earth.

                On the other hand, should the U235 survive a launch failure but end up in the wrong hands, say someone working on a weapon...well that is another issue.

                • An RTG uses Pu-238 which is an ideal fit because of its half-life (long enough to provide power for decades, short enough to provide usable amounts of power), and because it emits pretty much alpha radiation only, which is really easy to shield. It also needs no liquid cooling, making it fairly easy to stick the Pu in a launch-failure-survivable container.

    • and recharge all the electric vehicles fully overnight

      You could, theoretically (assuming max efficiency) power exactly one (1) Tesla 'Home Charger,' if you fed it the minimum 208 required volts (208v) and were charging a standard Model S or X (48 amp draw). According to Telsa.

  • Impressive (Score:4, Funny)

    by 110010001000 ( 697113 ) on Friday May 04, 2018 @09:11AM (#56553224) Homepage Journal
    This is impressive but with the NASA designed EmDrive this will not be needed in the future when we colonize other stars and planets.
    • by Spirilis ( 3338 )

      Wouldn't this be a suitable power source for the EmDrive? Say.... when you're too far from the sun to collect enough solar power?

    • NASA didn't design the EMDrive, they just tested it. The EMDrive does require electricity to run.
  • by Spirilis ( 3338 ) on Friday May 04, 2018 @09:16AM (#56553252)

    I find it amusing they call nuclear "old-fashioned", when Fission was only discovered in 1938... granted photovoltaic may be newer, but we've known about solar and wind power (and combustion) in varying methods of harvest for millennia.

  • The idea of the neighborhood reactors. They were to be powered by uranium hydride and be the size of a garden shed. Did these ever come to fruition? https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/nov/09/miniature-nuclear-reactors-los-alamos [theguardian.com]
  • Use ganged tesla turbines. The problem with the tesla turbine is that it is only efficient in a very narrow speed/load range, but that's trivially solved by using multiples. Using multiples means backup/redundancy, and tesla turbines have only one moving part.

    • I'll notify NASA immediately to stop work on this and switch to your design.
      • No need (Score:4, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 04, 2018 @09:46AM (#56553422)

        I'll notify NASA immediately to stop work on this and switch to your design.

        NASA monitors Slashdot at +5 to find the right way to do things. NASA's management figured out years ago that the science and engineering PhDs have nothing on a Slashdotter.

        See, all those hours in the company's basement telling people, "Have you tried turning off and on again?" allows them to think big thought. And years of experience coding Javascript makes a Slashdotter an expert on space travel.

        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          It isn't just JavaScript experience. They have blogs that detail every step needed for interplanetary travel. Step #1: build space factories. Step #2: mine asteroids in factories, etc. NASA is just a bunch of bureaucrats though, so they will never get it together.
      • Yeah and you'll be in charge of delivering the air and fuel to space.
  • We are nowhere near the point where we need to worry about powering a space colony, so why is NASA wasting money on this part ? Probably some senator getting a good deal.

    • by 110010001000 ( 697113 ) on Friday May 04, 2018 @09:42AM (#56553394) Homepage Journal
      Perhaps you missed the news where SpaceX is going to land cargo on Mars in 2022 and humans will arrive soon after. They will need power.
      • Perhaps you missed the news where SpaceX is going to land cargo on Mars in 2022 and humans will arrive soon after. They will need power.

        Define "soon".

        It'll take about 6 months from launch to reach Mars, if things are aligned nicely.

    • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Friday May 04, 2018 @10:07AM (#56553528)

      We are nowhere near the point where we need to worry about powering a space colony, so why is NASA wasting money on this part ?

      Well, one of the things that needs development before we do a space colony is a long-term power supply.

      So, absent NASA wasting money developing this, we won't ever reach the point of needing to worry about powering a space colony.

      • Well, one of the things that needs development before we do a space colony is a long-term power supply.

        Sure, but it's hardly the most difficult or pressing issue. Developing a rocket and lander so we can put heavy objects safely on the surface of the Moon/Mars is a bigger challenge. Once we get within 5 years of finishing that would be a good time to start worrying about power generation.

        Also, without a rocket, a power supply is useless. A rocket without a power supply can be used for plenty of other missions.

        • I agree. It is better to work on the rocket and lander first and then worry about other things later. They should switch the engineers working on this to work on the rocket and lander instead.
        • Sure, but it's hardly the most difficult or pressing issue.

          Umm, yeah it pretty much is the biggest issue. Literally every mission depends on having an power supply with usable power, weight, and volume parameters. EVERY mission. Manned or unmanned - it doesn't matter. EVERY mission requires a power supply.

          Developing a rocket and lander so we can put heavy objects safely on the surface of the Moon/Mars is a bigger challenge.

          There is no point in launching stuff into space unless you can power the stuff once it is in space. They go hand in hand. There are missions that are literally impossible with the currently available power supplies. To do those missions you need a better po

          • " There is no point in launching stuff into space unless you can power the stuff once it is in space."

            Exactly. And now that we have the power supply we can launch stuff in space. That is why I always told NASA to build power supplies FIRST and rockets SECOND. But they never listened and that is why we are still stuck on this rock in a gravity well.
            • by sjbe ( 173966 )

              That is why I always told NASA to build power supplies FIRST and rockets SECOND. But they never listened and that is why we are still stuck on this rock in a gravity well.

              Are you just in a particularly trolling mood today? You're spewing all sorts of dumb shit that isn't as funny as you think it is.

              • Yah, he hooked me up above, dammit. I realized it when I found him accidentally making a true comment further down the thread.

          • Name one mission that doesn't require a power supply. A mission needs a power supply to be a mission. It also needs a rocket to get to where the mission needs to go. It's not an either/or proposition. You need both.

            Of course, every mission needs a power supply, but very few need one that's 10kW. The size of the thing also doesn't look attractive for a rover.

    • We are nowhere near the point where we need to worry about powering a space colony, so why is NASA wasting money on this part ?

      Because if you don't have an adequate power system you NEVER will have a space colony. It's job number one. If you don't have adequate power system there is no mission. Literally every other part of the mission depends on it. Any form of transportation is fundamentally contingent upon having a reliable power supply with a power to weight (and volume) ratio adequate to the mission parameters. With a sufficiently small and powerful energy supply, nearly any mission is possible. Without it no mission is

      • Exactly. This was job #1. Now that we have a good small power source we can go to job #2 until we complete our mission.
      • Literally every other part of the mission depends on it.

        You just need to be reasonably confident that you can make one in time for the actual launch. You don't need one sitting in the lab right now before you can start working on the other tasks.

        • You just need to be reasonably confident that you can make one in time for the actual launch. You don't need one sitting in the lab right now before you can start working on the other tasks.

          Pray tell how you plan to be "reasonably confident" unless you are actually working on one? Research sometimes gets done sooner than you expect. Sometimes it takes longer. If you know you'll need a piece of technology you start working on it as early as your budget will allow to give the maximum amount of time to figure it out. If you are done early, great. Move on to other things. But procrastination is not your friend when every other part of the mission depends on it.

        • with power sorted then everything else becomes easier. look at it this way if these become COTS by the time we are doing an actual launch then we use Version 14 and know these work besides i would bet that if these are light enough to launch on a rocket then the Red Cross/Crescent/Crystal would buy a bunch of these to deploy to Disaster areas. MSF would love to have a Mobile Ward with solid power.

    • Well there is only so much you can do with solar and batteries, particularly with an absence of light. There are a ton of non-mars space applications it could be used for. RTG's which have been used in the past are the other option, but their power output is much smaller.

    • This thing is categorically NOT designed for colonies, though they could be shoehorned into doing the job early on in the absence of anything better. They just don't deliver enough power - their own example has four of the scaled-up 10kW models combined to deliver enough power for a single initial outpost - 40kW will keep a small research outpost alive, but provides very little excess energy to fuel ecosystem and industry growth, both of which would be critical for a colony.

      These are designed primarily for

  • Amazing (Score:4, Informative)

    by ArhcAngel ( 247594 ) on Friday May 04, 2018 @10:11AM (#56553544)
    I find it amazing that in this day and age we still have not figured out how to pull energy directly from the source. A nuclear reactor is just a fancy steam engine that uses hot rocks to generate steam. Surely there is a way to harness the radiation as an energy source that doesn't involve using the waste heat.
    • Re:Amazing (Score:5, Funny)

      by 110010001000 ( 697113 ) on Friday May 04, 2018 @10:22AM (#56553616) Homepage Journal
      Yeah. It is almost like there is Physics and stuff in the real world keeping us from doing things. I thought in 2018 we would have moved beyond Physical laws and things like that. They just hold us back. If you can dream it, you can do it!
    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      Surely there is a way to harness the radiation as an energy source that doesn't involve using the waste heat.

      It's hard to see how because the energy involved is just so high it would rip any static structure apart. It's not like one fission reaction interacts with one water molecule, it's bouncing around spreading the energy to a whole bunch of them. And it's not just radiation it's all the smaller nuclei created by splitting the atom. Heck, we don't even need power generation if you found a way to stop them dead you'd get a Nobel prize. It's an even bigger problem for fusion, it's a problem for space travel with

    • There's nothing wrong with steam engines. Steam engines are still used because heat is the only way we have to transfer energy with 100% efficiency. All other forms of energy transfer and transformation incur energy losses (as heat). Charging a battery loses about 20%-30% of the energy as heat. Discharging a battery does the same. Transforming electricity from one voltage to another loses a few percent as heat. A geared mechanical linkage loses about a percent as heat. A chain linkage more. etc. A
    • There is, but only from reaction products that are charged particles, not from neutrons. It's called direct energy conversion- you extract the energy from charged particles. It only works for some fission and fusion reactions since different reactions produce different products. Proton-boron fusion is especially promising, it is aneutronic (which has benefits for radioactivity and reactor housing damage) and lends itself to direct energy conversion. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org] https://en.wikipedia. [wikipedia.org]
    • It's a serious challenge - not least of which because a substantial portion of energy is shed as fast neutrons and gamma rays, neither of which are particularly easy to capture productively.

      One plan to do exactly that though does spring to mind in the context of the Polywell fusion reactor. The plan being to use a high voltage spherical ion strap to accelerate protons and boron into a central fusing point, where it the resulting reaction would produce high speed alpha particles (helium nuclei) that would t

  • They wanna send these things into space? Screw that, we need those HERE on planet Earth. Mass produce those babies!

    Clean energy for all, in a compact ruggized enclosure? I mean if someone takes it apart and dies from radiation, well that's on them.

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