Space Power!

On Earth we can deploy a 164-ton wind turbine to generate 1.5 megawatts of electricity, but in the also energy-hungry environment of space travel, far more efficient energy-per-mass systems are a must. The choices for such systems are not unlimited in the vacuum of space!

OK…this is a rather obscure topic, but as I discussed in my previous blog, in order to create space propulsion systems that can get us to Mars in a few days, or Pluto in a week, we need some major improvements in how we generate power in space.

I am going to focus my attention on ion propulsion, because it is far less controversial than any of the more efficient nuclear rocket designs. Although nuclear rocket technology is pretty well worked out theoretically and in engineering designs since the 1960s,   there is simply no political will to deploy this technology in the next 50 years due to enormous public concerns. The concerns are not entirely unfounded. The highest-efficiency and least massive fission power plants would use near-weapons grade uranium or plutonium fuel, making them look like atomic bombs to some skeptics!

Both fission and fusion propulsion have a lot in common with ordinary chemical propulsion. They heat a propellant up to very high temperatures and direct the exhaust flow, mechanically, out the back of the engine using tapered  ‘combustion chambers’ that resemble chemical rockets. The high temperatures insure that the isotropic speeds of the particles are many km/sec, but the flow has to be shaped by the engine nozzle design to leave the ship in one direction. The melting temperature of a fission reactor is about 4,500 K so the maximum speed of the ejected thermal gas (hydrogen) passing through its core is about 10 km/sec.

Ion engines are dramatically different. They guide ionized particles out the back of the engine using one or more acceleration grids. The particles are electrostatically guided and accelerated literally one at a time, so that instead of flowing all over the place in the rocket chamber, they start out life already ‘collimated’ to flow in only one direction at super-thermal speeds. For instance, the Dawn spacecraft ejected Zenon particles at a speed of 25 km/sec. If you had a high-temperature xenon gas with particles at that same speed, the temperature of this gas would be 4 million Celsius! Well above the melting point of the ion engine!

We are well into the design of high-thrust ion engines, and have already deployed several of these. The Dawn spacecraft launched in 2007 has visited asteroid Vesta (2011) and dwarf planet Ceres (2015) using a 10 kilowatt ion engine system with 937 pounds of xenon propellant, and achieved a record-breaking speed change of 10 kilometers/sec. It delivered about 0.09 Newtons of thrust over 2,000 days of continuous operation. Compare this with the millions of Newtons of thrust delivered by the Saturn V in a few minutes.

Under laboratory conditions, newer ion engine designs are constantly being developed and tested. The NASA NEXT program in 2010 demonstrated over 5.5 years of continuous operation for a 7 kilowatt ion engine. It used 862 kg of xenon and produced a thrust of 3.5 Newtons, some 30 times better than the Dawn technology.

Theoretically, an extensive research study on the design of megawatt ion engines by David Fearn presented at the Space Power Symposium of the 56th International Astronautical Congress in 2005 gave some typical characteristics for engines at this power level. The conclusion was that these kinds of ion engines pose no particular design challenges and can achieve exhaust speeds that exceed 100 km/sec. As a specific example, an array of nine thrusters using xenon propellant would deliver a thrust of 120 Newtons and consume 7.4 megawatts. A relatively small array of thrusters can also achieve exhaust speeds of 1,500 km/sec using lower-mass hydrogen propellants.

Ion propulsion requires megawatts of energy in order to produce enough continuous thrust to get us to the high speeds and thrusts we need for truly fast interplanetary travel.

The bottom line for ion propulsion is the total electrical power that is available to accelerate the propellant ions. Very high efficiency solar panels that convert more than 75% of the sunlight into electricity work very well near Earth orbit (300 watts/kg), but produce only 10 watts/kg near Jupiter, and 0.3 watts/kg near Pluto. That means the future of fast space travel via ion propulsion spanning our solar system requires some kind of non-solar-electric, fission reactor system (500 watts/kg) to produce the electricity. The history of using reactors in space though trivial from an engineering standpoint, is a politically complex one because of the prevailing fear that a launch mishap will result in a dirty bomb or even a Hiroshima-like event in the minds of the general public and Congress.

The Soviet Union has been launching nuclear reactors into space for decades in its Kosmos series of satellites. Early in 1992, the idea of purchasing a Russian-designed and fabricated space reactor power system and integrating it with a US designed satellite went from fiction to reality with the purchase of the first two Topaz II reactors by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (now the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). SDIO also requested that the Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, MD propose a mission and design a satellite in which the Topaz II could be used as the power source. Even so, the Topaz II reactor had a mass of 1,000 kg and produced 10 kilowatts for an efficiency of 10 watts/kg. Due to funding reduction within the SDIO, the Topaz II flight program was postponed indefinitely at the end of Fiscal Year 1993.

Similarly, cancellation was the eventual fate of the US SP-100 reactor program. This program was started in 1983 by NASA, the US Department of Energy and other agencies. It developed a 4000 kg, 100 kilowatt reactor ( efficiency = 25 watts/kg) with heat pipes transporting the heat to thermionic converters.

Proposed SP-100 reactor ca 1980  (Image credit: NASA/DoE/DARPA)

Believe it or not, small nuclear fission reactors are becoming very popular as portable ‘batteries’ for running remote communities of up to 70,000 people. The Hyperion Hydride Reactor is not much larger than a hot tub, is totally sealed and self-operating, has no moving parts and, beyond refueling, requires no maintenance of any sort.

Hyperion, Uranium Hydride Reactor (Credit:Hyperion, Inc)

According to the Hyperion Energy Company the Gen4 reactor has a mass of about 100-tons and is designed to deliver 25 megawatts electricity for a 10-year lifetime, without refueling. The efficiency for such a system is 250 watts/kg! Of course you cannot just slap one of  these Bad Boys onto a rocket ship to provide the electricity for the ion engines, but this technology already proves that fission reactors can be made very small and deliver quite the electrical wallop, and do so in places where solar panels are not practical.

Some of the advanced photo-electric system being developed by NASA and NASA contractors are based on the solar energy technology used in the NASA Deep Space 1 mission and the Naval Research Laboratory’s TacSat 4 reconnaissance satellite, and are based on ‘stretched lens array’ lens concentrators for sunlight that amplify the sunlight by up to 8 times (called eight-sun systems). The solar arrays are also flexible and can be rolled out like a curtain. The technology promises to reach efficiency levels of 1000 watts/kg, and less than $50/watt, compared to the 100 w/kg and $400/watt of current ‘one sun’ systems that do not use lens concentrators. A 350 kW solar-electric ion engine system is a suggested propulsion for a 70 ton crewed mission to Mars. With the most efficient stretched lens array solar arrays currently under design, a 350 kW system would have a mass of only 350 kg and cost about $18 million. The very cool thing about this is that improvements in solar panel technology not only directly benefit space power systems for inner solar system travel, but lead to immediate consumer applications in Green Energy!  Imagine covering your roof with a 1-square-meter high efficiency panel rather than your entire roof with an unsightly  lower-efficiency system!

So to really zip around the solar system and avoid the medical problems of prolonged voyages, we really need more work on compact power plant design that is politically realistic. Once we solve THAT problem, even Pluto will be a week’s journey away!

Check back here on Monday, April 24 for my next topic!