A team of researchers, including engineers from Los Alamos National Laboratory, has demonstrated a new concept for a reliable nuclear reactor that could be used on space flights. The research team recently demonstrated the first use of a heat pipe to cool a small nuclear reactor and power a Stirling engine at the Nevada National Security Site’s Device Assembly Facility near Las Vegas. The Demonstration Using Flattop Fissions (DUFF) experiment produced 24 watts of electricity.
“The heat pipe and Stirling engine used in this test are meant to represent one module that could be used in a space system,” said Marc Gibson of NASA Glenn. “A flight system might use several modules to produce approximately one kilowatt of electricity.”
Current space missions typically use power supplies that generate about the same amount of electricity as one or two household light bulbs (100-200 watts). The availability of more power could potentially boost the speed with which mission data is transmitted back to Earth, or increase the number of instruments that could be operated at the same time aboard a spacecraft.
“A small, simple, lightweight fission power system could lead to a new and enhanced capability for space science and exploration”, said Los Alamos project lead Patrick McClure. “We hope that this proof of concept will soon move us from the old-frontier of Nevada to the new-frontier of outer space”.
“Perhaps one of the more important aspects of this experiment is that it was taken from concept to completion in 6 months for less than a million dollars,” said Los Alamos engineer David Dixon. “We wanted to show that with a tightly-knit and focused team, it is possible to successfully perform practical reactor testing.”
Image: A proposed deep-space probe to Jupiter that uses the radioactive nuclear engine proposed at NASA and Los Alamos. Los Alamos National Laboratory
Heat pipes — a cooling technology used in many laptops — distribute the fission heat to eight Stirling engines that would produce about 500 watts of power. In contrast, the Cassini-Huygens probe is powered by 72 pounds of plutonium-238, which generated about 880 watts at its launch in 1997.