first_imgLast week we reported on how NASA is testing a new lasercom system that could eventually see a HD video feed beamed back from Mars with just a 5 minute delay. It sounds great, but there’s just one problem: even if it turns out to work and they land an optical communications system on the surface of Mars, how do they power it?Well, it turns out NASA is working on a system to solve that problem, and it involves fitting a nuclear power generator into a space the size of a suitcase. NASA is calling it a fission surface power system.This lightweight, tiny nuclear reactor is seen as one way of solving the long-term power demands for unmanned devices and outposts positioned where solar power is not a viable option. Instead a nuclear reactor that could provide large amounts of power for many years sounds like the best option.This fission system functions by using the small nuclear reactor to power a Stirling engine which works through the heating and cooling of a gas. The expansion and contraction of the gas works a piston and in turn generates power. The Stirling engine is suitable because it is highly efficient, a closed system meaning the gas is reused for the life of the engine, and it can work with just about any heat source.A Stirling engine in operationThe final unit is expected to be the same size as a typical suitcase measuring 1.5 x 2.5 feet with an overall weight light enough to be carried by a satellite. In terms of power and longevity, a reactor of that size would be capable of providing 40 kilowatts of electrical energy (around the same as is required by 8 typical homes) for 8 years. When in use it can be buried on the surface of a planet to act as a shielding against radiation from the reactor.Such power would not only make it possible to position electronics equipment in dark locations on other planets or aboard satellites, it also means powering a colony or outpost on another planet is feasible for many years. The size of the nuclear reactor also means replacing a spent unit should be a relatively simple task.This isn’t a new project and was first announced in 2008. But with the recent events surrounding a new optical communication system the power system behind it also needs to fall into place and this seems to be it. NASA plans to show off a first version of the power system capable of generating 12 kilowatts of electrical energy at some point next year. The lasercom system will be tested in space come 2015 giving NASA plenty of time to bump the power output up to the desired 40 kilowatts.Read more at TPMlast_img

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