Thursday, January 3, 2013

Nuclear Power Could Blast Humans Into Deep Space

By Peter Suciu
Nuclear Power Could Blast Humans Into Deep Space
Current modes of space travel can conceivably power a manned mission no farther than to Mars -- and that would likely be a one-way trip. Some old-fangled tech can be cobbled together in a new way to surmount today's limitations, though. So what's holding us back? For one thing, it's the nuclear option. Without the risk, though, there can be no reward.

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A team of researchers, including engineers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, this week reported their successful demonstration of a new concept that could provide reliable nuclear power for space exploration. The technology is still years away from the warp drive ofStar Trek, but it could provide a means of propulsion for space travel beyond the moon.

John Bounds
John Bounds of Los Alamos National Laboratory's Advanced Nuclear Technology Division makes final adjustments on the DUFF experiment, a demonstration of a simple, robust fission reactor prototype that could be used as a power system for space travel. (Credit: NASA)

The research team demonstrated the first use of a heat pipe to cool a small nuclear reactor and power a Stirling engine at the Nevada National Security Site's Device Assembly Facility near Las Vegas. The Demonstration Using Flattop Fissions (DUFF) was the first use of a space nuclear reactor system to produce electricity in the United States since 1965.
"This is really a new old system, as it is a new platform build on an old technology," said Michael Podowski, Ph.D., professor of nuclear engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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