Feature Stories

Powering Space Missions with Nuclear Science

Recently, the Trump administration inked its commitment to future space missions with a $19.5 billion dollar budget announcement to the U.S. Space Agency. Among the projects NASA has slated include a human mission to Mars sometime after 2030 and a Canada-U.S. partnership could help to provide the power to get there.

Studying the solar system is no easy feat. Minimal sunlight and severe weather conditions are just two challenges that face outer space explorations. On Mars, nighttime temperatures can fall below -70 degrees Celsius and violent dust storms can destroy solar panels. Harsh environments and ever evolving missions require an effective power and heat source for spacecraft.

Enter nuclear science and radioisotope power systems.

Billions of miles away from a gas station or electric charging station, radioisotope power systems (RPS) have allowed scientists to research and study the limits of our solar system. Electricity is produced from the decay of the isotope plutonium 238 (Pu-238). As the isotope decays it gives off a tremendous amount of heat energy which is converted into electricity. With a half-life of 88 years, a radioisotope power system is able to provide continuous energy for long term deep space missions. As compared to solar power, an RPS can reach into deep space where solar power is ineffective.

However, there is a limited supply of Pu-238 that is needed for deep space research leaving the future of deep space exploration potentially in the dark.

Enter a Canadian-U.S. collaboration and a proposal to shift space research into high gear. A partnership between Technical Solutions Management (TSM), Ontario Power Generation (OPG), Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and Pacific Northwest National Labs (PNNL) would support and augment the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) program to renew the production of Pu-238, allowing scientists to continue their exploration of the solar system.

“Our hope is to land a contract to expand the amount of Pu-238 that is available for space exploration,” according to Glen Elliott, Director, Business Development, Ontario Power Generation.

If approved, the mission could be well on its way to powering future space ventures in the next 5 years, by 2022. The concept would rely on a commercial reactor to produce the necessary isotope, specifically OPG’s Darlington reactor.

“The flexibility of the plan makes it ideal. Depending on the mission requirements, it could be scaled up or down customizing the amount of fuel needed,” according to Elliott. “The Darlington reactor has online fueling capability and an ideal neutron flux so you can precisely control the irradiation time.”

A neutron flux is comprised of two elements; the speed and distance that the neutrons cover. Like football players on a field, the neutron flux is the speed at which the players are running and the total distance of the field that they cover.

The other benefit of the Darlington reactor is that it can produce the fuel needed for radioisotope power systems while performing its primary objective of producing electricity.

“This project is just another example of the broad economic and societal benefits of nuclear power. It provides clean, low-cost power, it helps in the medical world and if successful can be a part of the next generation of space travel,” said Jeff Lyash, President & Chief Executive Officer, Ontario Power Generation.

The proposal would help ensure an adequate global supply of Pu-238 for space missions and strengthen a Canada-U.S. partnership while creating jobs, boosting the economy and advancing the field of science exploration.