Space

November 28, 2012

Researchers test novel power system for space travel


A team of researchers, including engineers from Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M., has demonstrated a new concept for a reliable nuclear reactor that could be used on space flights.

The research team recently demonstrated the first use of a heat pipe to cool a small nuclear reactor and power a Stirling engine at the Nevada National Security Site’s Device Assembly Facility near Las Vegas. The Demonstration Using Flattop Fissions (DUFF) experiment produced 24 watts of electricity. A team of engineers from Los Alamos, the NASA Glenn Research Center and National Security Technologies LLC conducted the experiment.

Heat pipe technology was invented at Los Alamos in 1963. A heat pipe is a sealed tube with an internal fluid that can efficiently transfer heat produced by a reactor with no moving parts. A Stirling engine is a relatively simple closed-loop engine that converts heat energy into electrical power using a pressurized gas to move a piston. Using the two devices in tandem allowed for creation of a simple, reliable electric power supply that can be adapted for space applications.

Researchers configured DUFF on an existing experiment, known as Flattop, to allow for a water-based heat pipe to extract heat from uranium. Heat from the fission reaction was transferred to a pair of free-piston Stirling engines manufactured by Sunpower Inc., based in Athens Ohio. Engineers from NASA Glenn designed and built the heat pipe and Stirling assembly and operated the engines during the experiment. Los Alamos nuclear engineers operated the Flattop assembly under authorization from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

DUFF is the first demonstration of a space nuclear reactor system to produce electricity in the United States since 1965, and the experiment confirms basic nuclear reactor physics and heat transfer for a simple, reliable space power system.

“The nuclear characteristics and thermal power level of the experiment are remarkably similar to our space reactor flight concept,” said Los Alamos engineer David Poston. “The biggest difference between DUFF and a possible flight system is that the Stirling input temperature would need to be hotter to attain the required efficiency and power output needed for space missions.”

“The heat pipe and Stirling engine used in this test are meant to represent one module that could be used in a space system,” said Marc Gibson of NASA Glenn. “A flight system might use several modules to produce approximately one kilowatt of electricity.”

Current space missions typically use power supplies that generate about the same amount of electricity as one or two household light bulbs. The availability of more power could potentially boost the speed with which mission data is transmitted back to Earth, or increase the number of instruments that could be operated at the same time aboard a spacecraft.

“A small, simple, lightweight fission power system could lead to a new and enhanced capability for space science and exploration,” said Los Alamos project lead Patrick McClure. “We hope that this proof of concept will soon move us from the old-frontier of Nevada to the new-frontier of outer space.”

Los Alamos research on the project was made possible through Los Alamos’s Laboratory-Directed Research and Development Program, which is funded by a small percentage of the Laboratory’s overall budget to invest in new or cutting-edge research. NASA Glenn and NSTec also used internal support to fund their contributions to the experiment.

“Perhaps one of the more important aspects of this experiment is that it was taken from concept to completion in 6 months for less than a million dollars,” said Los Alamos engineer David Dixon. “We wanted to show that with a tightly-knit and focused team, it is possible to successfully perform practical reactor testing.”




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 

NASA awards contract to support agency’s human spaceflight programs

NASA has selected Wyle Laboratories Inc., of El Segundo, Calif., to provide biomedical, medical and health services in support of all human spaceflight programs at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The work supports ongoing research aboard the International Space Station and helps enable the journey to Mars. The Human Health and Performance contract...
 
 
nasa-astronaut

Astronaut Stephen Frick retires from NASA

Astronaut Stephen Frick has retired from NASA to accept a position in the private sector. Frick, who flew as both a shuttle pilot and commander, left the Agency July 13. Steve has been a great asset to the astronaut office and ...
 
 
NASA/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt photograph

NASA’s Kepler mission discovers bigger, older cousin to Earth

NASA/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt photograph This size and scale of the Kepler-452 system compared alongside the Kepler-186 system and the solar system. Kepler-186 is a miniature solar system that would fit entirely inside the orbit of ...
 

 
NASA photograph by A. Gemignani

Launch, docking returns ISS crew to full strength

NASA photograph by A. Gemignani The Soyuz TMA-17M rocket launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan July 22, 2015 carrying Expedition 44 Soyuz Commander Oleg Kononenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), F...
 
 
NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI photograph

NASA’s New Horizons team finds haze, flowing ice on Pluto

NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI photograph Pluto sends a breathtaking farewell to New Horizons. Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s atmosphere rings its silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft around ...
 
 
NASA photograph

NASA satellite camera provides ‘EPIC’ view of Earth

NASA photograph Earth as seen on July 6, 2015, from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. A NASA camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) ...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>