Nuclear Power in Space at the Center of IAEA and UN Events: Nuclear Policies
February 21, 2022
Future space missions may have new options opened up by nuclear technology, experts attending an International Atomic Energy Agency event have said.
Illustration of a Mars transit habitat and nuclear propulsion system (Image: NASA)
“Nuclear technology has long played a vital role in leading space missions, but future missions could rely on nuclear-powered systems for a much wider spectrum of applications – our way to the stars is through the atom,” said Mikhail Chudakov, deputy director of the IAEA. general.
He was speaking at the virtual IAEA event – Atoms for Space: Nuclear Systems for Space Exploration – in the presence of 500 people from 66 countries.
“Crewed interplanetary missions of the future will almost certainly require propulsion systems with levels of performance far exceeding those of today’s best chemical engines,” said William Emrich, the project’s former principal engineer at NASA.
Hui Du from the Beijing Institute of Spacecraft Systems Engineering, citing a study by the Chinese Academy of Space Technology, said, “For space missions that require high electric power, such as a human mission on Mars or space ferries, a fission reactor-based power system can be a very competitive choice.”
What are the nuclear energy options?
One option is nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP), which is where a nuclear fission reactor heats a liquid propellant, such as hydrogen, converting it to a gas that expands through a nozzle to provide thrust and propel spaceship. Compared to traditional chemical rockets, this could reduce travel time to Mars by up to 25%.
Another option is nuclear electric propulsion (NEP) where thermal energy from the reactor is converted into electrical energy. The thrust of this method is weaker but continuous and with a much higher energy yield, it has higher speeds and could reduce the travel time to Mars of traditional chemical rockets by 60%.
Research is also underway on possible future nuclear fusion rockets that would have a direct fusion drive (DFD) that directly converts the energy of charged particles produced in fusion reactions into propulsion.
Stephanie Thomas, Vice President of Princeton Satellite Systems, which is developing a fusion rocket concept, said: “A DFD can produce orders of magnitude greater specific power than other systems, reducing travel times and increasing payloads, allowing us to reach deep space. destinations much faster.”
What about other uses of nuclear energy in space?
In addition to providing thrust for rockets, there is also a need for onboard electrical power, and nuclear reactors could also be used to provide astronauts with power for extended exploration missions or long-term communities on other planets.
“NASA’s priority remains the design, construction, and demonstration of a low-enriched uranium fission surface power system that has broad applications for the Lunar Surface Initiative as well as our eventual Mars mission. with humans, scalable to power levels above 100 kWe, and has the potential to advance the needs of the NEP system,” said Anthony Calomino, Space Nuclear Technology Portfolio Manager at NASA.
“The use of nuclear fission reactors, carrying out continuous chain reactions for many years, is inevitable for both space propulsion and extraterrestrial surface power,” said Vivek Lall, general manager of General Atomics Global. Corporation.
The UN also considered security issues
The issue of nuclear technology in space and its likely use for various purposes and possibly by commercial entities as well as nation states was discussed at a meeting of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs Scientific and Technical Subcommittee. United Nations.
A working paper from the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, prepared by the UK and the European Space Agency, notes that since 2010, the subcommittee’s working group has been successful in “promoting the ‘safe use of nuclear power source applications in outer space’. among States interested in the use of such applications”.
But he adds that “the international space sector is changing…private commercial entities are interested in the use of space nuclear power sources and are beginning to propose and engage in the development and use of space-based energy sources.” nuclear space”.
“The potential future use of nuclear reactors as part of long-term human facilities raises a number of new safety-related questions.”
It provides an international forum to “collect and exchange information on plans and projects for the development and use of space nuclear power sources by new actors, including commercial entities”.
In a draft report released after a meeting earlier this month, the subcommittee also adds that “the view was expressed that it is the responsibility of States to ensure that the use of sources of nuclear energy in space is strictly for peaceful purposes, avoiding at all costs the placement in Earth orbit of any object carrying nuclear weapons or any other type of weapon of mass destruction, as well as avoid at all costs the placement of such weapons on celestial bodies and the placement of weapons in outer space in any other form.”
He added: “The subcommittee welcomed the fact that some States and an international intergovernmental organization were developing or considering developing legal and regulatory instruments on the safe use of nuclear power sources in outer space. , taking into account the content and requirements of the Principles relating to the use of nuclear power sources in outer space and some Safety Framework for Nuclear Power Source Applications in Outer Spacewhich was developed jointly by the Subcommittee and the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
Research and writing by World Nuclear News