This article was originally published on November 28, 2012.
Researchers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, Los Alamos National Laboratory and National Security Technologies LLC (NSTec) have tested a mini prototype nuclear reactor engine that could power up deep space satellites and spaceships in the future.
The nuclear engine is designed based on a Sterling engine which is capable of using a 50 pound nuclear uranium as a heat source. Sources say that this 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. 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.
NASA has previously used plutonium-238 to power deep space probes in Voyager, Pioneer and Cassini mission. Watch the video by Los Alamos National Laboratory about the nuclear reactor system for deep space exploration.
A nuclear Sterling engine generates power with uranium which would help reduce the need for plutonium-238. If such safe and reliable nuclear engines are created, it will be possible for humans to reach deeper into the vast space. This will take the space research to great heights.