Nuclear power has been widely used in various fields like electricity production, powering submarines, atomic bombs, medical applications, etc. Today we will start a new series that covers various aspects of nuclear technology in space.
Let us first understand its need. While solar power is much more commonly used, nuclear power can offer advantages in some areas. Solar cells, although efficient, can only supply energy to spacecraft in orbits where the solar flux is sufficiently high, such as low Earth orbit and interplanetary destinations close enough to the Sun. Unlike solar cells, nuclear power systems function independently of sunlight, which is necessary for deep space exploration. E.g.: Once a probe gets past Jupiter, though, the number of photons per square meter drops below the level at which a solar panel array is a good choice for power.
Nuclear-based systems can have less mass than solar cells of equivalent power, allowing more compact spacecraft that is easier to orient and direct in space. In the case of crewed spaceflight, nuclear power concepts that can power both life support and propulsion systems may reduce both cost and flight time.
Selected applications and/or technologies for space include:
- Radioisotope thermoelectric generator
- Radioisotope heater unit
- Radioisotope piezoelectric generator
- Radioisotope rocket
- Nuclear thermal rocket
- Nuclear pulse propulsion
- Nuclear electric rocket
In our next newsletter, we will briefly cover individual technologies. Do let us know if you wish to cover any specific aspects. Till then take care and be safe.
- Image credits: NASA