ANS Nuclear Cafe Friday Matinee: Nuclear Power in Space!

Friday-Nuclear-Matinee

The news this week that NASA has contracted for as many as 12 of the new Orion manned space flight capsules brings again to focus the fact that the US is returning to manned space flight in a big way.  While orbital flights will be first, it’s clear that a return to the moon is in the cards and that, perhaps, we may go to Mars.

How do you get power all the way out there?  Well, up to the old Apollo program we used sources like solar, fuel cells and batteries for the vehicles but the novel portable science stations left on the moon’s surface were actually nuclear powered!  Further, the stations that were left there – known as “ALSEP” or Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package – operated for years after the actual Apollo program was ended at flight number 17.

In today’s Matinee video, you can learn about the kind of nuclear power used to supply these ALSEPs as we take a look at “Atoms for Space,” a film produced by the US Atomic Energy Commission at the start of the 1960’s.  This interesting film covers both the SNAP battery power sources, driven by nuclear decay (as was used in the ALSEP) as well as true fission power systems.

It’s been said that a voyage to Mars must be one of two things – either a long, drawn out haul which will require a lot of supplies and a long duration power source, or else a very fast out and back which will require a lot of propulsion power for high speed and particularly for braking force once arriving at Mars.  Either way, the solution best able to handle the job is nuclear energy.  For the long term flight, a nuclear battery or a group could be employed; for the high speed flight a nuclear rocket would be ideal.  And work is again underway right now to redevelop these nuclear space power sources!  That’s why today’s presentation is important – it shows that we’ve been there before (in terms of space nuclear) and can go back again.  And then to the moon, and beyond!

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