We need more powerful nuclear engines to explore space. Production increases plutonium-238

In the past year, "Voyager 2" finally made it into interstellar space, having more than 18 billion kilometers. This epic mission was made possible by nuclear energy, on technology which spacecraft have worked for decades. Spacecraft, like a pair of "Voyager", equipped with radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). These engines rely on the fact that as the destruction of radioactive substances generate heat. Converting heat produced by the decay of plutonium-238 (P-238), into electricity, the spacecraft continues long after the solar rays become dull sheen.

We need more powerful nuclear engines to explore space. Production increases plutonium-238

What fly "Voyagers"

RTG also hold us back. If we want to send spaceships - or people - we can not further, faster and are more likely to continue to rely on the same nuclear technology that was used for decades. As we expand our coverage?

Our stocks of plutonium-238 is almost exhausted. His first games were produced in the United States as a byproduct of the creation of military-grade plutonium-239 during the Cold War. To continue research, NASA needed a lot more.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory has taken on the task of its production in 2012. Production of even a few grams was slow and manual process. But last month, scientists from Oak Ridge announced that they finally developed a way to automate and increase the production of neptunium and aluminum pellets needed for the production of P-238. The pellets are converted into the precious P-238 during compacting in aluminum tubes with subsequent irradiation in the reactor. The creation of these granules were the most problematic place in this process, and getting people out of the equation also required a lot of experiments. "In many nuclear work is necessary" to bake and watch, "says program manager Bob UEM. "You design, putting a lot of safety factors in the design; You get your hands; see if it works as you'd expect. " After years of measurement and automation of production, it worked out.

Now the laboratory produces 50 grams of P-238 a year, but in the near future plans to reach up to 400 grams per year. According to forecasts, the annual goal by NASA in 1, 5 kilograms can be reached within two years. The more we have P-238, the more we will be able to send missions into deep space.

The small steps into space

NASA also explores the creation of more efficient RTG - improved multi-RTG or UMRITEG. But in order to make a breakthrough, to look for something new. In the end, require more powerful systems. Only nuclear fission can provide such power in the short-term scenario, says David Poston of the National Laboratory of Los Alamos.

We need more powerful nuclear engines to explore space. Production increases plutonium-238

Postton - the main developer of the reactor Kilopower, prototype reactor division, which NASA has successfully tested last year. He will be able to provide long mission with energy, perhaps even planetary outposts people. "The way we make this a reality, simplifying everything," says Poston. "We had a lot of space reactor program in the last 30 years, but they all failed. Mainly because they were too expensive. " Currently Kilopower power is 4 kilowatts, but scientists hope to overclock it up to 10 kW.

The giant leaps

Not so long ago were considered more futuristic ideas, including the detonation of the atomic bomb in the back of the spacecraft in the so-called nuclear pulse engine (obviously, he had a number of practical problems). But some people are still working hard to realize crazy ideas.

One of these teams work in Princeton Satellite Systems, which seeks to generate megawatts of energy using nuclear fusion. Yes, we have moved from watts to kilowatts and megawatts. You are probably familiar with the synthesis - it takes place in the sky every day, thanks to our sun. The synthesis produces several times more energy than fission, but it is difficult to control.

We need more powerful nuclear engines to explore space. Production increases plutonium-238

Princeton Satellite Systems engine develops on the direct synthesis which uses magnetic fields to generate a current in the plasma and heating it up to 1 billion degrees Celsius. The team says that the thrust, which in theory could, would reduce the travel time between solar systems by more than half (the trip to Pluto would take four years, instead of nine), and more energy would be left to make the machine the size of a minivan.

"If you have power at the time, when you reach your destination, you can spend a lot of really cool experiments", says physicist Charles Swanson Company. "One of the coolest things that made" Cassini "is a radar images of Saturn's moon Titan. But radar requires a lot of energy and limited in scope. The presence megawatt power frees options. " The company has received a huge amount of funds from NASA and the US Department of Energy, so that someone believes in the success of this event. But let's be honest, the success will not come soon. Nuclear fusion is in the very early stages of research.

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