Countdown to fission on the moon: Candidate designs wanted

November 23, 2021, 3:00PMNuclear News
Artist’s concept of a fission surface power system on Mars. (Image: NASA)

NASA and Idaho National Laboratory have just opened a competitive solicitation for U.S. nuclear and space industry leaders to develop innovative technologies for a fission surface power system that could be deployed on the surface of the moon by the end of the decade. Battelle Energy Alliance, the managing and operating contractor for INL, issued a request for proposals and announced the news on November 19. Proposals are due February 17.

As Perseverance makes tracks, NASA must plan its next Mars move

March 10, 2021, 3:00PMNuclear News

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover took its first drive on the surface of Mars on March 4, traversing 21.3 feet and executing a 150-degree turn in about 33 minutes. The drive was one part of an ongoing check and calibration of every system, subsystem, and instrument on Perseverance, which landed on Mars on February 18.

The NASA team has also verified the functionality of Perseverance’s instruments, deployed two wind sensors, and unstowed the rover’s 7-foot-long robotic arm for the first time, flexing each of its five joints over the course of two hours.

With relatively little fanfare, the functionality of Perseverance’s radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG)—assembled at Idaho National Laboratory and fueled by the decay of plutonium-238—is also being proved. It is reliably providing the power that Perseverance’s mechanical and communication systems require.

Axios reviews “green” fuel options for commercial shipping

March 10, 2021, 12:01PMANS Nuclear Cafe

In an article published on March 5, Axios reviews the ways the world’s maritime companies are trying to decarbonize. The maritime industry, “from ferries to freighters—is trying to navigate a once-in-a-century transition away from fossil fuels to new, cleaner means of propulsion,” the article explains.

Emissions from shipping: The article notes that the world’s economy relies on international shipping, with more than 90 percent of global trade traveling via maritime vessels. The issue, though, is that “the vessels burn about 4 million barrels of oil a day, accounting for almost 3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.” The article then cites a United Nations report from 2018 that sets greenhouse gas reduction targets of 50 percent by 2050 compared to 2008 levels.

Trump leaves space nuclear policy executive order for Biden team

January 20, 2021, 3:00PMNuclear News

A hot fire test of the core stage for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi was not completed as planned. The SLS is the vehicle meant to propel a crewed mission to the moon in 2024. Source: NASA Television

Among the executive orders President Trump issued during his last weeks in office was “Promoting Small Modular Reactors for National Defense and Space Exploration,” which builds on the Space Policy Directives published during his term. The order, issued on January 12, calls for actions within the next six months by NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD), together with the Department of Energy and other federal entities. Whether the Biden administration will retain some, all, or none of the specific goals of the Trump administration’s space nuclear policy remains to be seen, but one thing is very clear: If deep space exploration remains a priority, nuclear-powered and -propelled spacecraft will be needed.

The prospects for near-term deployment of nuclear propulsion and power systems in space improved during Trump’s presidency. However, Trump left office days after a hot fire test of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket did not go as planned. The SLS rocket is meant to propel crewed missions to the moon in 2024 and to enable a series of long-duration lunar missions that could be powered by small lunar reactor installations. The test on January 16 of four engines that were supposed to fire for over eight minutes was automatically aborted after one minute, casting some doubt that a planned November 2021 Artemis I mission can go ahead on schedule.

U.K. launches study into nuclear-powered space exploration

January 15, 2021, 6:58AMANS Nuclear Cafe

A new research contract between the U.K. Space Agency and Rolls-Royce will see planetary scientists working together to explore nuclear power as an energy source for deep space missions in the decades to come. The effort is similar to one that the United States is undertaking through NASA.

"Space nuclear power and propulsion is a game-changing concept that could unlock future deep-space missions that take us to Mars and beyond," said Graham Turnock, chief executive of the U.K Space Agency, on January 12. "This study will help us understand the exciting potential of atomic-powered spacecraft, and whether this nascent technology could help us travel further and faster through space than ever before."

NASA and DOE sign MOU on interplanetary nuclear propulsion

October 28, 2020, 12:09PMNuclear News

A “visionary view” of a nuclear thermal propulsion–enabled spacecraft mission. Image: NASA

Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on October 20 signed a memorandum of understanding to continue decades of partnership between the Department of Energy and NASA and to support the goals of NASA’s Artemis program. These include landing the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024 and establishing sustainable lunar exploration—using nuclear propulsion systems—by the end of the decade to prepare for the first human mission to Mars.