Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Packing power, 09.07.11

NASA is working on a power source that could revolutionize space exploration. A nuclear reactor the size of a regular suitcase, it is strong enough to power eight average US homes, yet portable enough to travel in small, compact space craft. Designed by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory, the generator is not actually in production yet, but given that its true value is proven, it could be venturing outside Earth’s atmosphere in a few decades or less.
A concept lunar space station. Image credit:
So, what could such a generator be used for? More dependable that solar power panels, the generators would be smaller, more durable, much easier to repair, and portable. They could be used on the “dark side” of whatever planet they happened to be stationed on (yes, we are dreaming about space stations on the Moon or Mars). They would also generate far more power than a solar cell of comparable size.
Wait a minute, what about nuclear meltdown? In light of disasters light Chernobyl and the recent leaks in earthquake and tsunami-wrecked Japan, would we really want to rely on nuclear reactors? Well, it turns out the suitcase-sized reactors would be much more stable than the monster, factory-sized reactors located throughout our nation and across the world. According to James Werner, the lead researcher on the project, “There would be no danger of meltdown… Because of the low power level…if we did have a situation where the power failed, the reactor itself would just shut down.”
Of course, one also has to take into consideration what sort of waste these things would generate, how often they would have to be refueled, and more. But, in light of the massive boost in exploration power they could provide (pun intended), such details seem to be exactly that: details. For now, researches are bent on thorough testing to see if these power packs are viable options.

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