Science space probe using new nuclear engine

Published on November 27th, 2012 | by Michael Ricciardi


NASA, Los Alamos Lab Test New Nuclear Engine to Power Future Deep Space Missions [VIDEO]

space probe using new nuclear engineEngineers from NASA and Los Alamos National Laboratories have successfully tested a small, prototype nuclear reactor engine that may power future deep space probes.

One of the primary, long-standing goals of space exploration is the development of a small/light-weight, long-lasting power source for long-term space missions. Solar panels become less practical as one ventures further into space (past Mars), as available solar energy diminishes greatly; use of solar panels on deep space probes would require greatly increasing the size of these panels (up to a football field in length!), making them highly impractical.

Even newly developed solar-ion propulsion engines may not be practical for larger probes and missions to (and beyond) the outer solar system as the solar wind also diminishes at these distances.

Until some long-lasting, alternative power source is discovered, nuclear power is our best choice for long-term space probe needs.

So, with this newest prototype, scientists have come closer to realizing this critical goal.

What’s more, the basic concept underlying this newest engine design actually comes from the 19th Century! It’s called the Stirling engine – an engine that utilized hot pressurized gas to push a piston.In the envisioned form, the engine would be comprised of a 50 pound “nuclear uranium battery” used to generate the required heat (and thus also pressure) which is then channeled to eight Stirling engines which convert this mechanically into electrical power. This as-yet-unrealized version would be capable of producing 500 watts of power — just barely enough to power all on-board control, sensor, and data transmission systems.

The prototype developed by engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center and Los Alamos National Laboratory is a much more modest design using a small nuclear source and just one Stirling engine, yielding only 24 watts of power. This is too little to power a space craft, even a small one. Most deep space probes require at least 600 watts of power.

But the space scientists involved in this project are confident that this prototype nuclear engine can be scaled up to suit the needs of future space probe missions.

According to WIRED (see source link below), this effort represents “the first test of a nuclear reactor system to power a spacecraft conducted in the U.S. since 1965.”

This new uranium-based engine prototype comes along at a good time. Up until now, NASA has used plutonium-238 as a power source in its deep space probes, like the Cassini probe currently orbiting Saturn. However, in the 1980′s The U.S. began decommissioning its plutonium production sites, such that, as of now, little is left for space missions. Some of the last useful quantities of the radionuclide are now powering the Curiosity rover as it investigates the surface of Mars.

But, in 2011, NASA and the Department of Energy received significant funding to restart plutonium production which would make a few pounds of the highly-coveted material available each year for space missions (including those from other countries).  But the small yield per cost make this less practical in the long-term.

By further refining this newest nuclear engine design, it would likely decrease demand for the more expensive plutonium and make for a more practical and plentiful nuclear energy source for space missions for many decades to come (or until we finally achieve ‘warp drive’ capability).

Watch the video animation of the proposed Nuclear Fission Engine for Deep Space Exploration:

Source for this post: WIRED News article ‘New Nuclear Engine Could Power Deep-Space Exploration’

Top Image: A proposed deep-space probe to Jupiter that uses the radioactive nuclear engine proposed at NASA and Los Alamos. Los Alamos National Laboratory



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About the Author

Michael Ricciardi is a well-published writer of science/nature/technology articles as well as essays, poetry and short fiction. Michael has interviewed dozen of scientists from many scientific fields, including Brain Greene, Paul Steinhardt, Arthur Shapiro, and Nobel Laureate Ilya Progogine (deceased). Michael was trained as a naturalist and taught ecology and natural science on Cape Cod, Mass. from 1986-1991. His first arts grant was for production of the environmental (video) documentary 'The Jones River - A Natural History', 1987-88 (Kingston, Mass.). Michael is an award winning, internationally screened video artist. Two of his more recent short videos; 'A Time of Water Bountiful' and 'My Name is HAM' (an "imagined memoir" about the first chimp in space), and several other short videos, can be viewed on his website ( He is also the author of the (Kindle) ebook: Artful Survival ~ Creative Options for Chaotic Times

  • anderlan

    The Mars installation at the end made me chuckle.  Would I rather have 50lbs of Uranium or 2kW of panels + 100lbs of batteries to give me a constant 500W on Mars.  Hmmmmm.  Like they said at the beginning, SOLAR: it’s what’s for dinner on Earth and the inner parts of any star system.

  • Alexander Stuy

    Also from wikipedia: “Usually, thermoelectric generators are used for small applications where heat engines (which are bulkier but more efficient) such as Stirling engines would not be possible.”    

  • Alexander Stuy

    Curiosity uses the plutonium to heat a thermocouple.    Seems like uranium should be able to do that also.  I’m guessing the sterling engine is more efficient.
    “NASA calls it the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG.
    And the principle is quite simple: the radioactive plutonium generates
    heat by splitting naturally into more stable atoms. The heat is used to
    ‘cook’ a thermocouple that generates electricity to the whole system.Okay, so just like you, my next question was: what is a thermocouple?
    When you make 2 different metals touch each other, it creates a tension
    (voltage) that is dependant on the temperature. It is very reliable to
    calculate the tension from the temperature if you use the right metals.
    Now, if you want to make a battery, you just need to have 2 junctions at
    2 different temperatures. You can get more info from
    Wikipedia’s page on thermocouple. “

  • Alexander Stuy

    How do they make electricity from plutonium and why can’t they use the same method to make electricity from uranium?  I assume they both get hot in sufficient concentration and mass of the radioactive version of the element.

  • Jdoh

    Doesn’t anyone proof read their articles any more?

    • Bruce

      Someone is stuck on minutia.

  • Hudres

    If the problem is the short supply of Plutonium, why not remanufacture the thousands of thermonuclear cores (pits) into fuel suitable for space power applications.  “…beating their swords into plowshares…”

  • Mcchalium

    What you really need are some prime dilithium crystals laddie…

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