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Countries bet big on nuclear energy to explore deep space

  • Published
    21st Mar, 2022

From fuel to outer space power plants, the world is developing different usages of nuclear energy to explore space.


How is nuclear energy getting utilized in space missions?

  • Nuclear batteries, dubbed Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators or RTGs, have been powering spacecrafts for more than six decades.
  • They perform two key functions:
  • Providing power to keep the on-board instruments running,
  • supplying heat to protect the instruments from the cold environs of space
  • In 1961, the first RTG-powered satellite, the Transit 4A spacecraft, took off from the US.
  • Since then, several nuclear-powered missions have been launched, including 25 from the US.
  • In 2013, China soft-landed its RTG-powered Chang'e 3 robot on the moon.
  • The global discourse is now moving beyond RTGs.
  • The US and China plan to set up a nuclear power reactor on the moon to provide electricity for astronauts camping on the lunar body.

Nuclear energy

  • Nuclear energy is a form of energy released from the nucleus, the core of atoms, made up of protons and neutrons.
  • This source of energy can be produced in two ways:
    • fission – when nuclei of atoms split into several parts
    • fusion – when nuclei fuse together
  • The nuclear energy harnessed around the world today to produce electricity is through nuclear fission.
  • Nuclear fusion is the process whereby nuclei join together into one nucleus. The fusion of two atomic nuclei into one nucleus is not possible under standard temperature and pressure.

 NASA’s efforts:

  • NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Martian soil in 2021, is also nuclear-powered.
  • NASA launched its nuclear-powered Voyager 1 and 2 space probes in 1977 to study the outer solar system and beyond. The space probes provide information to this day.
  • Space agencies are currently using the eighth generation of nuclear batteries called the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator or MMRTG.
  • It provides 110 watts of electrical power.
  • A light bulb consumes the same energy.
  • This is enough to power all the instruments on-board.
  • In 2021, NASA invited proposals from industries to design nuclear power systems for lunar applications.
  • By 2030, the space agency plans to set up a plant that will continuously provide 10 kilowatts (kW) of power—the average annual power intake of a home on Earth.

India and Nuclear energy for space exploration:

  • India, which has till now relied only on solar power for its outer space missions, wants to join the bandwagon.
  • In 2021, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) took its first step by inviting companies to develop a 100-watt RTG.
  • Solar arrays power most satellites in the Earth’s orbit.
  • ISRO used solar panels and lithium-ion batteries to power the Mangalyaan mission to Mars and the Chandrayaan 1 and 2 missions to the moon. But solar panels work best in sunlit regions.
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