The term "suitcase nuke" hasn't enjoyed a particularly popular connotation in recent years, but researchers convening at the 242nd National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society this week think such a concept is the future of interplanetary space travel. Scientists supporting a joint NASA/DOE project to develop future power plants for space colonists envision the first such power supplies being suitcase-sized fission reactors that future space explorers could deploy quickly and reliably in the harsh environs of another planet like Mars.
These mini-reactors would have no cooling towers or billowing steam clouds emanating from them. Rather, they would stand about two feet tall and maybe a foot wide, with a compact uranium fission chamber and power plant tucked inside. Unlike the solar panel systems often deployed aboard interplanetary missions--like the Spirit and Opportunity rovers currently on Mars--a small fission system could supply the kind of constant, steady power necessary for human survival on another planet.
That will be key for establishing a beachhead on another planet, as everything from life support systems (oxygen supplies and carbon dioxide scrubbing, for instance) to water treatment to keeping the lights and heat/cooling on will rely on around-the-clock energy. Any lapse in power, and the humans relying on those systems would quickly find themselves in a bad way.
Plus, such suitcase nukes would fit neatly in any future space vehicle's overhead bins, defraying the cost of checking. The joint NASA/DOE initiative hopes to produce a working demo unit next year.
At least when humans finally do head back out for 'deep space' we can do it in style:
Simulated gravity, radiation protection, compact nuclear generators, Four wheel drive heavy duty pick up rovers, "Open faced club, sand-wedge." (salvating)
Lost focus. What was the point?
Yes, cool stuff. Won't get us there sooner, but at least this is idea that will keep us there permanently, like we should have done with the moon back in the 1970s.
Plus we might get there in style. You know, something to the likes of a proto NX-01.
Order your blue Starfleet flightsuits online now at Amazon.com.
I want one for my house.
Isn't that what the power armor in fallout is powered by?
I hope we humans setup a permanent space station, moon station, mars station and a space ship that is permanently stays in grows in technology constantly and travels about. We humans need to make a firm and solid foundation in space. “Ya-Who-eeee! Off the space we GO!”
a network of these to power a small city on the moon or mars or underwater....im all for this
A nuclear reactor that fits in a suitcase. What could possibly go wrong?
Seriously, I'd like to see more details on how this is suppose to work. Is it a thermo-electric device? is there a mini Sterling engine inside of it? Radioactive mutant hamster on a wheel?
It will be even more interesting to know if the fuel is thorium-or some other element/compound. I wonder also how much they will weigh as the shielding and fuel will make the suitcase comparison moot-it may be the size of a suitcase, but won't be light enough for anyone to carry (even on Mars).Nevertheless, I eagerly await more info on this subject!
Strange, I wrote some comments hours ago that still have not shown up. The problem with this "nuclear suitcase" nonsense is that it would likely cost millions of dollars. That's the problem with nuclear, in general. It's too expensive. An equivalent weight of thin film solar panels would produce many times the power of one of these inefficient Radio Thermal Generators. That is, without cooling systems, as the article claims, these generators would be rather inefficient. Also they would have to be shielded, adding to the expense and complication of cooling them.
A better alternative is beamed power. Any mars mission would likely have an orbiter component. A large solar array in mars synchronous orbit would be able to beam huge amounts of power through the relatively thin martian atmosphere. Even if one opted for a nuclear reactor, it would be smarter to park one in orbit and beam the power down than to expend the fuel to land it and set it up on the surface.
aarcanto, while certain solar panels may be able to outperform the early prototype they haven't made yet, they will not outperform full 40 kW goal, I am sure all possible options are being explored. There are several problems with beaming power, it will probably cost a lot more to send a an entire satelite with a big enough solar array and assemble it then it will for and single package small device that can be carried with other cargo. The article doesn't mention the device's weight so comparing it to existing technology is silly.
Even if you factor in R&D costs beamed power loses the only way for them to test a power beaming system since the earth's atmosphere is different is to test it in space, and from there either test again on the moon or mars. Where as a contained nuclear device could be just tested on earth and in space. These test costs would likely encompase the majority of the budget for either device. When talking about power generation in space, size and weight are cost saving and the value of materials used is negligible in comparison to the value of the fuel and testing costs.
Sweet! Its a start to me having my mobile suit! This can be a start to mining Helium 3 on the moon and then we can convert these over to fusion then we'll be a lot better off.
If we do stay with this, not converting over, it might not be a great idea. What happens when one of these goes and we screw up another planet or years of work in the way of a blown apart station? It is a great start, don't get me wrong, however I don't feel its a very sustainable alternative. Its a first in. Once we're up and going, it should be abandoned or sent somewhere else while we use something a little more stable. I feel we don't have anything right now that is sustainable though.
Using state-of-the-art theoretical computations, a team of scientists has determined that an alloy formed by a 2 percent substitution of antimony in gallium nitride has the right electrical properties to enable solar light energy to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.
We're never really going to be able to establish colonies anywhere we want until we learn to harness the natural radiation that's just floating around out there in space. The Sun already produces so much of the stuff that it'll kill us if we're not shielded from it properly, so shouldn't that mean it'd be a reliable source of power if we could catch it and convert it to electricity somehow? I have no idea if that'd be practical to do with a small-scale device, but it should at least be worth looking into.
The nuclear powered location beacon transmitter the aliens implanted in my left buttock back when they first picked me up back in '73 has apparently been working like a champ for almost 40 years. They always seem to find me every year.
I keep telling the people at the hospital they need to take it out and send it to NASA to learn how it works, but nobody listens. If I could reach it with a scalpel, I'd take it out myself.
First off, you don't have to build a special satellite to beam the power. I already explained that a manned mission would almost certainly leave an orbiter and land with a smaller craft. The orbiter would have the solar arrays and the power transmitter. Beamed power has already been tested and can be quite efficient.
Secondly, pound for pound, thin solar films still perform way better than these reactors, especially if they lack cooling systems and efficient generators. To be efficient these devices often need to be much larger, like on the order of a real power plant. Tiny generators are unlikely to actually produce 40 kWh of electricity. They might produce 40kWh of heat, but only a small fraction would be converted to electricity.
Thirdly, by the time they build these new reactors solar power will have advanced too. Solar technology is advancing way faster than nuclear because the technology for solar is quite similar to the technology for microchips.
The solar power crowd is forgetting several very importent factors in there argument:
One, is the surface climate of Mars. If we want a long term establishment, you have to take into account the yearly dust storms. A robotic rover may be able to survive, but they require several orders of magnitude less energy than a crew of humans.
Secondly is size. The proposed suitcase reactor is 2'x1', that's about the size of a 5 gallon bucket with maybe an output of 3-4kW, 10kW maximum. Mass wise, two average people can just move a 5 gallon bucket full of lead, this will be much lighter. How much area does a thin film solar cell need to be to provide the same output? How big is your power receiver? And remember, this is Mars, which is farther from the sun.
Next is maintenance. Your solar power system is going to be at least a meter square, and you need to keep the dust off of it. You just have to bring your nuke case inside when you go inside.
Deployment. The nuke case goes into a storage compartment on your rover. To deploy, find an even patch of ground, and push a few buttons or turn a couple knobs, then plug in everything you need to use. Solar array goes into a storage compartment all folded up. Find an even bit of ground, with line of sight to the orbiter. Deploy the array, align with orbiter, and confirm power downlink. Run meters and meters of cables to where the power is required. And you gotta pick it all up when you want to leave, and you might need to leave in a hurry. With the nuke case you don't need line of sight with the sky, giving the crew more flexibility in their exploration options. Overhangs and caverns become more accessible.
Time is the key deciding factor in all of these arguments. Dawdling along getting the campfire started when you are in hospitable conditions and have unlimited air to breath is one thing, but it is another entirely when you only have a few hours at a span. A nuke case takes way less time to manage than any solar power system.
News flash: This just in from 1945. Radio waves penetrate dust.
News flash 2: In other news, dust storms have no effect upon orbital solar collectors. Now back to you with fantasies about "the miracle of nuclear power". How is that "too cheap to meter" thing working out for the industry?
The real problem with this alleged nuclear reactor is that it doesn't exist and probably won't exist in a year, or two, or three either. It's vapor ware. If it is built, it will probably cost millions of dollars, which is 10 to 100 times more than the other reasonable alternatives. Nuke-heads are always looking for some exotic excuse to justify wasting a mountain of money on the latest nuclear boondoggle.
The reason why we don't use nuclear power for spaceflights is that launch accidents result in space craft falling back to earth, and it was decided we did not want radioactive materials scattered across the surface. This same problem still exists. On a robot mission, radioactivity can be better tolerated, needing less shielding, but even electronics can be damaged by radioactivity, so shielding greatly increases the weight. One of the biggest reasons for space colonization is the destruction of the earth environment, so if we are to be considered "advancing" we need energy systems that do not create inhospitable conditions.
Reactor producing waste heat? Mars is cold, it's not 'waste' heat.
Solar array in orbit? Maintenance? A reactor on the surface is mighty easier to maintain.
The goal of the suitcase reactor is the initial ease of use and how it will deliver steady power reliably when establishing the base since they NEED that reliable power in order to survive, any problem in the supply and they DIE. A self-contained compact system that can be quadruple-checked before leaving and easily set up is far better than some remote-operated solar-array in orbit that might get wrecked by a micrometeor the minute they land. Of course I don't doubt that after they got the basic infrastructure up and running they will start expanding solar-power, it is cheaper after all.
The reactor is simply the reliable start-up kit. And probable future back-up.