New power source for planetary missions?


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Research at JPL has developed new materials called skutterudites that have the potential of increasing the efficiency and power output of the radioisotope electric generators used on deep space missions where solar power will not work.

The new eMMRTG would provide 25 percent more power than Curiosity’s generator at the start of a mission, according to current analyses. Additionally, since skutterudites naturally degrade more slowly that the current materials in the MMRTG, a spacecraft outfitted with an eMMRTG would have at least 50 percent more power at the end of a 17-year design life than it does today.

“Having a more efficient thermoelectric system means we’d need to use less plutonium. We could go farther, for longer and do more,” Bux said.

This being NASA research, they are moving somewhat slowly in testing and confirming whether these new materials will work. They hope that after passing further reviews in 2017 and 2018 the agency might finally approve their use in subsequent missions.

3 comments

  • Localfluff

    I understand that Curiosity only enjoys 1/6 of a horse power electric power. For all its movements and all it’s instruments. Most of the decaying plutonium in its RTG just produces heat (which is also necessary to keep stuff working). 25% increase of that would give a Curiosity rover 1/5 or 1/4 of a horse power. It’d still be a sloth. But it’s a big leap for a sloth…

    Imagine what a real nuclear power plant could accomplish there! Or a grand sailing ship rig of solar panels on top of a rover. And imagine what’s required for bringing planetary scientists there, of the human kind.

  • Tom Billings

    “Imagine what a real nuclear power plant could accomplish there! Or a grand sailing ship rig of solar panels on top of a rover. And imagine what’s required for bringing planetary scientists there, of the human kind.”

    Better yet, emplacing in Mars orbit a series of Solar Dynamic Power Satellites of around 10 megawatts, (the minimum size for a Super-Critical CO2 turbine unit) that could use microwaves to beam down power to a much lighter weight rectenna array the rover could unroll periodically to recharge batteries, would allow nearly constant travel at rates far higher than currently. This would, however, imply that we were serious about settling Mars, since building larger Power Sats from Martian In Situ Resources would become probable. That is not politically profitable, so no NASA money will be allocated by Congress.

    Worse, it would be an exemplum for what could be done in orbit around Earth, stealing the thunder of the Green Parties and their equivalents. That won’t be talked about even by private companies until its about to happen, so that the opposition won’t have time to build up mometum over “irradiating Mars with Microwaves”. The greenies just cannot have the idea of a technical solution to their scare program demonstrated, or their donor’s investments will tank.

  • Localfluff

    10 MWe is almost 100 times the Solar array of the ISS. But Boeing say they plan building 1 MW Solar arrays for com sats, so these things seem realistic. Beamed power is a neglected research subject. Probably because it isn’t very practical and safe on Earth. Doesn’t seem to be any magic involved. Maybe there’s sense in have one huge Solar array in GEO (above e.g. the US) that beams power to many communication satellites around it. Space is made for wireless.

    And we’ll just tell the greenies that that gadget at Mars is necessary for protecting Earth from Niburu.

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