If you think earth is the only planet in the universe to have nuclear power plants, it is time to rethink. Two more planets, moon and mars, are set to join the pursuit soon.
USA’s Battelle Energy Alliance, LLC (BEA), teaming up with the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has sought ideas from the innovators on how to build nuclear power units in other planets. It has called for innovative technological proposals to set up fission surface power (FSP) systems at moon and mars to power NASA’s space operations.
Unlike earth where humans live with less or no hardships (key needs like air, water and food are abundant on earth), the environment at these planets is not human-friendly — no breathable oxygen, no drinkable water, less gravity and strange terrain.
Nevertheless, man’s desire to conquer planets other than earth made him to land on moon, the natural satellite of earth, and stamp footprints. Landing was only a beginning and the thirst is not over yet. We are keen on living on distant planets.
Foremost want in this fascinating but gruelling aspiration is to know about the unknown lands, and then to search for resources like water and other minerals. But such an exploration in such a hostile environment, which may draw out for a quiet longer time, is not possible without a reliable and robust power supply system.
Running a thermal power plant (coal or oil or gas based) on a terrestrial planet like lunar and on the red planet, Mars, is nearly impossible as it requires transporting and loading of fuel very often and needs at least a small team to operate. Similarly, the options of renewable energy such as solar and wind seem inapt as they are intermittent and unreliable. And a hydro plant is out of question as humankind is still not sure about the existence of water in these planets.
Probably, that is why, space scientists and power engineers are zeroed in on nuclear power source. According to NASA, the requirement to keep its lunar and martian exploration setup powered sustainably is that the power system ought to provide at least 10 kilowatts electricity round the clock for about 10 years and should weigh about 3 tons. Means, the machine has to be compact and pre-loaded with the fuel for such a long time operation, or should have plug-and-use system for periodic refuelling (both are possible in nuclear technology).
From icebreaker to aircraft carrier, nuclear-fuelled transportation is already in use on earth. Particularly, nuclear is a much sought after technology when it comes for continuous power generation for years without refuelling. For instance, submarines: With the onboard nuclear reactor, a submarine can sail even up to twenty years without refuelling.
Likewise, nuclear power plants on earth are also faring well. Since the first commercial nuclear power generation in 1950s, the world has gained over 17,000 reactor years of experience in nuclear power. About 10 percent of the total electricity generation comes from nuclear energy and it is the world’s second largest source of low-carbon power. Presently, about 30 countries are utilising nuclear technology to generate electricity and about 442 nuclear reactors of various size and kind are in operation worldwide. In the wake of global warming of earth due to the excessive emission of green-house gases like carbon dioxide, the non-polluting nuclear is regarded as the best alternate to the polluting fossil-fuel-fired plants.
Besides, nuclear power technology is also known for its reliable and continuous operations. Many nuclear power reactors in the world have operated non-stop for over two years. United Kingdom’s Heysham-2 unit #8 (940 days); India’s Kaiga Generating Station unit #1 (962 days) and Canada’s Darlington unit #1 (1106 days); are to name a few. These are very large size nuclear reactors when compared to the proposed power units at moon and mars, though, the point being drawn here is that humanity is highly seasoned in harnessing the atom’s energy.
Apparently, nuclear is a best suited reliable power source for the long-term space explorations. And, by all means, NASA aims to launch such a power system by 2026. The request for information on setting up a nuclear power reactor in moon and mars let out by the US based space exploration agencies seeks preliminary designs on fission surface power, known as FSP for testing and validation. After analysis, these agencies wants to take up the project in two phases: One, finalisation of the design of FSP engineering demonstration unit including hardware and software integration; Two, construction, commissioning and ground testing of the FSP-EDU.
Ultimately, the fission source power unit has to run on the south polar region of lunar and on mars. That means, space explorers wants that the intended power units must be designed and made in such a manner that they must function consistently on harsh environments and surfaces.
Stalwarts in the nuclear field across the world are gearing up to prove their mettle in this technological challenge. If everything goes well, a reliable power system is expected to be in place by another five to six years. Then, exploration of these faraway planets will take a new pace and the dream of settling in planets beyond earth may soon become a reality.