Nuclear power is an emotive subject - particularly in the wake of the Fukushima power plant disaster after Japan's March earthquake and tsunami - but in space, it may be an essential component of spreading mankind beyond terrestrial shores.
On Monday, at the 242nd National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Denver, Colo., the future face of space nuclear power was described. You can forget the huge reactor buildings, cooling towers and hundreds of workers; the first nuclear reactors to be landed on alien worlds to support human settlement will be tiny.
Think less "building sized" and more "suitcase sized."
"People would never recognize the fission power system as a nuclear power reactor," said James E. Werner, lead of the Department of Energy's (DOE) Idaho National Laboratory.
"The reactor itself may be about 1 feet wide by 2 feet high, about the size of a carry-on suitcase. There are no cooling towers. A fission power system is a compact, reliable, safe system that may be critical to the establishment of outposts or habitats on other planets. Fission power technology can be applied on Earth's Moon, on Mars, or wherever NASA sees the need for continuous power."
The joint NASA/DOE project is aiming to build a demonstration unit next year.
Obviously, this will be welcome news to Mars colonization advocates; to have a dependable power source on the Martian surface will be of paramount importance. The habitats will need to have a constant power supply simply to keep the occupants alive. This will be "climate control" on an unprecedented level.
Water extraction, reclamation and recycling; food cultivation and storage; oxygen production and carbon dioxide scrubbing; lighting; hardware, tools and electronics; waste management - these are a few of the basic systems that will need to be powered from the moment humans set foot on the Red Planet, 24 hours 39 minutes a day (or "sol" - a Martian day), 669 sols a year.
Fission reactors can provide that.
However, nuclear fission reactors have had a very limited part to play in space exploration up until now. Russia has launched over 30 fission reactors, whereas the US has launched only one. All have been used to power satellites.
Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), on the other hand, have played a very important role in the exploration of the solar system since 1961.
These are not fission reactors, which split uranium atoms to produce heat that can then be converted into electricity. RTGs depend on small pellets of the radioisotope plutonium-238 to produce a steady heat as they decay. NASA's Pluto New Horizons and Cassini Solstice missions are equipped with RTGs (not solar arrays) for all their power needs. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), to be launched in November 2011, is powered by RTGs for Mars roving day or night.
RTGs are great, but to power a Mars base, fission reactors would be desirable because they deliver more energy. And although solar arrays will undoubtedly have a role to play, fission reactors will be the premier energy source for the immediate future.
"The biggest difference between solar and nuclear reactors is that nuclear reactors can produce power in any environment," said Werner. "Fission power technology doesn't rely on sunlight, making it able to produce large, steady amounts of power at night or in harsh environments like those found on the Moon or Mars. A fission power system on the Moon could generate 40 kilowatts or more of electric power, approximately the same amount of energy needed to power eight houses on Earth."
"The main point is that nuclear power has the ability to provide a power-rich environment to the astronauts or science packages anywhere in our solar system and that this technology is mature, affordable and safe to use."
Of course, to make these "mini-nuclear reactors" a viable option for the first moon and Mars settlements, they'll need to be compact, lightweight and safe. Werner contends that once the technology is validated, we'll have one of the most versatile and affordable power resources to support manned exploration of the solar system.
Sadly, I suspect the biggest hurdle facing space fission power won't be the viability of its technology, but the bad press nuclear power receives, on Earth and in space.
Image credit: NASA