NASA has developed a suitcase-sized fission nuclear reactor capable of generating 40-kilowatt electricity in space. Designed to work on the fission nuclear technology, this nuclear reactor will prove to be a reliable power source not only on Earth, but on the moon and the Martian surface claim the scientists.
The main point is that nuclear power has the ability to provide a power-rich environment to the astronauts or science packages anywhere in our solar system and that this technology is mature, affordable and safe to use, says James E. Werner, the lead researcher of the project.
Contrary to the conventional nuclear plants, spanning across hectares of lands and requiring huge cooling tanks, the nuclear fission power reactor is as small as 1 1/2 feet wide by 2 1/2 feet high. With the cutting-edge technology of the fission reactors, the suitcase-sized plants can provide enormous amount of power compared to their predecessor, making them ideal to carry and use for the astronauts in space.
What is Nuclear Fission?
Nuclear fission, in simple terms, is a process of fissioning or splitting of atoms. When uranium atoms split, they generate tremendous power which gets converted into mechanical energy and finally gets stored as electrical energy.
Solar Cells vs. Nuclear Fission
Solar cells and fuel cells have traditionally been used by the astronauts for generating electricity to power their crafts and devices. But these sources have their limitations as their consistency and reliability in outer space have been a serious concern for the scientists in the past. While the solar cells work best in near-Earth orbits, fission nuclear reactors work under any circumstances, Werner explains. The non-reliance on sunlight makes the nuclear reactor a steady and better power provider at nights and works well in harsh environment too.
Scientists believe that the reactor has several potential applications like power oxygen or hydrogen generators. The reactors can also work as the charging devices for manned and unmanned electric scouting vehicles.
Controversies on Nuclear Reactor
Nuclear power has always been a controversial issue due to several accidents caused by overheating that created the catastrophe in recent past.
However, Werner is hopeful that astronauts will not have to face the meltdown issues, Because of the low power level, it's very safe. If we did have a situation where the power failed, the reactor itself would just shut down.
The team of NASA scientists plans to build a physical demonstration unit and test the capabilities of the fission nuclear reactor next year.