March 28, 2012

Atmospheric Breathing Electric Thruster for Planetary Exploration and Economical Radioisotope Power

1. This study will investigate the development of an atmosphere-breathing electric propulsion solar-powered vehicle to explore planets such as Mars. The vehicle would use atmospheric gas for propellant, eliminating the need to launch and carry the propellant from earth. The propulsion thruster would be electric where the gas is ionized in a plasma and accelerated by electromagnetic fields. The combination of high efficiency and high specific impulse of the electric propulsion thruster and free propellant in-situ will result in an exciting and enabling technology. At the completion of this development, NASA will be able to perform missions of extended lifetime and capabilities beyond those available by typical chemical rockets. Phase I will formulate feasibility of the concept through modeling, calculations and preliminary laboratory experiments and push validity into Phase II research.

2. Almost all robotic space exploration missions and all Apollo missions to the moon used Radioisotopic Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs to provide electrical power to instruments. The RTGs rely on the conversion of the heat produced by the radioactive decay of an isotope of plutonium (Pu-238) to electricity. Unfortunately, the supply of Pu-238 is about to run out. Developing a reliable supply of Pu-238 is crucial to almost all future space missions. We propose to investigate an economical production method for Pu-238 that will allow NASA or a private venture to produce several kilograms per year without the need for large government investment. The Center for Space Nuclear Research will evaluate the production rate in a commercial nuclear reactor, optimize the transit times of the target material in the reactor, assess costs of facilities to produce the isotopes, and estimate any costs to handle the waste stream form the process.

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