NASA’s New Space Engine Is Powered by Nuclear Fission

NASA’s New Space Engine Is Powered by Nuclear Fission


From a technology standpoint, there’s not
too many greater challenges than nuclear power in space. The physics involved in it is quite intense
— it has that luster of something totally different. We start with that highly enriched core, the
splitting of the atoms generates that heat that we need at the right power levels, at
the right temperature levels, and then we transfer that heat up to the power conversion
system. You convert that to electricity at that engine,
reject some of the waste heat, and then use the electricity for whatever you’re trying
to power, whether it’s a coffee maker or a very expensive instrument for science. It sounds pretty simple because it kind of
is simple. It’s just the engineering pieces aren’t always
simple. Nuclear energy and space flight have a deep
history that stretches all the way back to the Cold War. At the time, scientists were looking for new
ways to harness the power of the atom, and nuclear offered something special for deep-space
missions. We don’t have to rely on the sun. When we go out in deep space or whether we’re
in a shadowed crater on the moon or whatever, we’ve got our own energy source. That’s the biggest plus. The secondary piece of that is the amount
of power that energy can provide. Fission power is very, very high on the power
density scale. As a quick refresher, nuclear fission releases
heat energy by splitting atoms, and fusion combines two lighter atoms into a larger one. They both release an enormous amount of energy,
but scientists found fission easier to control for space missions. To tap into nuclear’s potential, NASA launched
a research program called SNAP. This kickstarted the development of radioisotope
thermoelectric generators, which use plutonium-238 and thermocouples to convert heat into electricity. These units have been on a number of famous
missions like Curiosity, Cassini, Pioneer, and even Voyager 1, which is currently cruising
on RTG power 21 billion kilometers away from us. The program also developed SNAP 10A, a fission
reactor that’s considered the U.S.’s first and only known nuclear space reactor. It took off in 1965, failed after 43 days
into the mission, and will be orbiting Earth for another 3,000 years. All subsequent nuclear space programs, like
NERVA, which looked into nuclear powered rockets, were shuttered or just didn’t get off the
ground. Now, given, they were working on bigger power
systems, which was part of the problem, I think. But, they were also chasing materials and
processes and things that weren’t available at the time. Today, nuclear power systems are seeing a
comeback, and that’s thanks to new mission targets. When we start talking about putting men on
the moon in 2024 or on Mars in the 2030’s, you need a lot more power. That’s where fission really kicks in. Kilopower, is one to ten kilowatts of electrical
power. That’s starting with the fuel source. It’s uranium, molybdenum alloy fuel. Highly enriched. We have sodium heat pipes that are attached
to that core. That sodium heat pipe carries that heated
vapor up to the Stirling power conversion system, and then we have to cool the cold
side of the engines to get that temperature difference that we need for that power conversion
and keep the engines from overheating. The other pieces of the reactor that are,
obviously, very important are the neutron reflector. That helps direct those neutrons back into
the core and keep that chain reaction going at the power levels that we need. Before operating this, we have a poison rod
inside the center of that core and then, when we get to our destination we have a mechanism
that would pull that rod out, make sure that those neutrons will not be absorbed anymore
and they can start the actual chain reaction that we need. One of the biggest attributes, I think, to
the success of this program was that we kept everything very small. And, we’re looking to make it as lightweight
as possible. Once the design was approved by NASA, the
system and the people behind it were shipped off to Nevada for testing. KRUSTY was the experiment, which stood for
Kilopower reactor using Stirling technology. That experiment was really a follow-on to
the Duff experiment, a demonstration using flat top fissions. Los Alamos, typically, or always likes to
name their nuclear experiments after Simpsons’ characters. We run through all those mission scenarios,
where we would turn off the cooling to the whole top end of the power conversion system
and see how the reactor reacted. And then, how we could really mess with them
and see is it going to be a stable controlled reactor. The experiment culminated in a 28-hour test,
from reactor startup to shutdown. It operated at 800 degrees Celsius and produced
over 4 kilowatts of power. The highest power nuclear mission we’ve ever
completed was Cassini, that had 870 watts. So, already our lowest is already higher than
any mission that’s ever been done. We did things to that reactor that you shouldn’t
do to a reactor, but it was really neat the way it handles. From concept to test was about three and a
half years. That’s a real quick timetable. To me, that’s the most impressive piece. Me and one of my buddies down at Marshall,
as we were cleaning things up afterwards. You know, the thousands of CAD models that
we had and the information that was generated, we’re like, how did we do all that work? I’m like, I don’t know. Some days, I don’t know. We worked a lot of hours and just had a lot
of passion. The fact that it worked really well was just
a bonus. This was a major step in demonstrating nuclear
power’s feasibility in the new space age, but there are still hurdles ahead. The real challenges are really political and
how we develop all the safety and security pieces to launching a nuclear system. There’s a whole lot of work related to making
sure that there’s no way you accidentally start that reactor up. And then there’s what we call the launch safety
piece, which also has a criticality accident associated with it, so if the launch vehicle
fails, and it falls into the ocean or on a beach or in the general public, we have to
show that it’s not going to turn itself on. Political will might be in favor this time. Congress recently passed a bill earmarking
$100 million for NASA to develop nuclear thermal rocket engines. So a future of fission, for both propulsion
and power, is looking ever more promising. We’ve just finished some studies with JPL
on how we use this for what we call nuclear electric propulsion. So, you couple our reactor with an electric
propulsion system and we can go do deep space missions, carrying much higher payloads, faster
times. We’ve got design concepts that couple four
of those to give us forty kilowatts electricity on one lander that now you can use for your
human habitat. Once we improve the technology and it’s available
as a power source, you’ll start to see some really neat propulsions on what they can do
with that extra power.

100 Replies to “NASA’s New Space Engine Is Powered by Nuclear Fission”

  1. We are here for your brains little kiddies! We like to tell you we invented things or have technology but we never show you it working! We also forgot to mention that even with nuclear fusion its a usless toy in a empty vacuum with nothing to push off of! We also forgot to apologize for faking all of our "space missions"!

  2. What is the point of fission reactors if we are close to finishing fusion reactors? I feel like these people that invested so much time in this are reluctant to abandon fission energy due to the time invested. Fission energy needs to be dismantled and never used again. The moment we get clean sustainable fusion energy its over. People need to realize its their responsibility to force governments ( global mafia) to end fission era. Even if war is needed we need to do it. Problem with todays society is that rich and powerful have no sense of repercussions. If they heads start to drop world will change.

  3. How can scientists be so incredibly intelligent and bright, yet they can't pronounce the word "nuclear" properly- 0:04 , 4:09 "nucular"!? πŸ€¦πŸ»β€β™‚οΈ

  4. Why do people pretend like nuclear power is some crazy far out technology, the only reason I don't have nuclear power is the government is strict on certain chemicals and on who can have them. It's not like it's hard to build a uranium or plutonium energy system, it's just hard because they made the reagents controlled and expensive. If there wasn't regulation, regular people like me would be building nuclear powered helicopters that launch straight up, then launch a nuclear rocket from mid air over water to space (to avoid a huge blast radius from being on the ground damaging stuff) and boom I'd be on my way to live in a nuclear powered star cabin for the rest of my life. I'd setup a cabin to grow food, and with a lifetime storage of backup rations. With enough nuclear power you could easily power a fully livable cabin and gigantic food storage plus a huge room for growing food for a little fresh food (plus vitamins) to avoid scurvy. I'd set target for nearest predicted suspected livable planet, put max power toward it trying to reach speeds unobtained by man. I'd litterally launch myself off of multiple nuclear explosions so I blast faster and faster around the sun than launch myself near light speed arriving at nearest earth world. If done fire I believe with enough nuclear detonations you could reach near light speed and than detonate the opposite way when your semi close to Target to stop. If the world seems livable than you go for a landing, if not you say eff it and live the rest your days sailing through space at a insane speed

  5. At school I was good in algebra and maths at that time I wanted to study nuclear energy at the Instituto Balceiro but now if there is no way to make nuclear waste recycled the way to make nuclear waste sustantiable that is the key I do not know if it is possible

  6. You dumbasses are gonna screw things up , we know it’s gonna happen sooner or later nasa playing with nuclear energy , oh lord!!!

  7. No medium to push off in space… No rockets work in a vacuum… That's a fact read how rockets work!!

  8. Just 100 million for this? Really Federal government? I guess dealing with petty human conflicts is worth billions and billions every year but science is just for private industry. What a joke

  9. I would have a lot more confidence in the project if he would pronounce nuclear correctly. Not the way George Bush butchered it by saying nuclular

  10. space travel is not ever going to happen it's just a dxxk measuring contest and they all short, putting nuclear in the atmosphere, I don't want that.

  11. The american military have ufo's .And the engine are not nucliare.
    In 1947 when the ufo craste in roswel .And there where another ship crast 2 of them with aliens on the ship's dead and alive.The ships has engine's that where high advanced and must by secret. Because if the people and scientist now wat te had in there hands .
    If we has used the high tech engine out ot to ships ,than we had no use of oil you understan and oil where the big money still are.
    High tech from alien ufo's are hidden from humans its alk about the money .
    Whats more important the earth or make more weapons on this earth.
    You like play wars try to take over the moon because thats a moon base and not a soul recycle base .
    GOD are not stupid to recycle souls on the moon haha.
    That happens in the sun and we people can not come there .
    America have real space ships in space for a long time .
    But te are not the big boss in space or in ore solar systen .
    There are aliens in or solar systen space comand .
    That means usa can not do what te want .There are rule's is space.

  12. Someday a more advanced, future version of this will be tweeked by a hobbyist messing with his spaceship. In doing so killing him, but also resulting in his wife learning what happened to him from his blueprints and other data, giving rise to the invention of the drive that changed the solar system forever……..

  13. Imagine if NASA has a Pentagon budget, instead of begging for crumbs? Or if a Pentagon sized budget was split between NASA, SpaceX and Blue Origin? We would have interplanetary spaceships in a decade.

  14. Hey yo. The 500k mile per hour Hall effect thrusters need 200 KW(estimated I believe). I think you are going to need to scale up some more to power a space crafts typical electrical systems and the deep space engines.

  15. No surprise. Those NASA jackasses cannot think outside-the-box (like i.e. Bezos) and must resort to POLLUTION!

  16. Great idea, we’ve handled nuclear power so well up to now?!??? Chernobyl, Fukushima. No way!!!! We as the public, needs to outlaw all power, weapons, etc… that uses nuclear power. Scientists are great at building reactors, but 0% successful clean up WHEN things go bad.

  17. So will nasa be useing better equitment did nasa build another rocket after the 1981 could they build ufos nasa

  18. A Nuclear Propulsion System realistically should be installed on a space vessel in orbit. The vessel (Theoretically) should be large enough to accommodate some sort of multi-service vehicle capable of entering and exiting a planets atmosphere. The vessel never enters the planet's atmosphere, it only orbits. Also it can make artificial gravity in a key area.

  19. Aliens be like…..not bad for talking monkeys. How long did we leave them alone???
    Alien2: bout 500000 years earth time, but we were in hyperspace at 7x light speed so 8 years for us

  20. RESPECT TO THE CREATIVITY, HARD WORK, THINKING ,IMAGINATION OF NASA SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS, RESPECT AND HATS OFF πŸ™πŸ™πŸ™πŸ™

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