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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Nuclear Energy Could Power The Trillion-Dollar Space Race

While the economy comes to a grinding halt here on Earth, some investors, inventors, and dreamers are looking to the stars for their next business venture. The final frontier has been touted as a potential breeding ground for untold numbers of industries in key economic sectors including mining, tourism, research and development, data collection and analysis, to name just a very few. 

In fact, the commercial potential of the space economy is allegedly so great and so untapped (for now) that Bank of America Merrill Lynch projected back in 2017 that the size of the space industry is due to explode, expanding to more than eight times its current size by 2050. Valued at nearly $400 billion now, that means that the space sector would reach a total value of nearly $3 trillion over the next thirty years. 

“We are entering an exciting era in space where we expect more advances in the next few decades than throughout human history,” a Bank of America report stated. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, however, were far more conservative in their projections than Bank of America Merrill Lynch, but the financial corporations still predicted that the space sector will expand to be a more-than trillion dollar industry inside of 20 years.

Even the United States Chamber of Commerce has been bullish on the space sector, stating that “total private investment is growing at a striking pace,” citing research by Bryce Space and Technology. “From 2000-2005, the industry received more than $1.1 billion in investment from private equity, venture capital, acquisitions, prizes and grants, and public offerings. By the 2012-2017 period, the industry had received more than $10.2 billion.” The Chamber goes on to say that, “the increased investment reflects the new opportunities in the commercial space sector and new startup ventures that did not exist a decade ago.” 

Last summer, Oilprice reported that the nuclear industry was also angling to get a piece of the modern-day space race. “In just a few short years from now, the United States will be shipping nuclear reactors to the moon and Mars,” the report said, citing statements from team members from the Kilopower project, a collaborative venture from NASA and the United States Department of Energy. 

“The Kilopower project is a near-term technology effort to develop preliminary concepts and technologies that could be used for an affordable fission nuclear power system to enable long-duration stays on planetary surfaces,” said NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “In layman’s terms, the focus of the Kilopower project is to use an experimental fission reactor to power crewed outposts on the moon and Mars, allowing researchers and scientists to stay and work for much longer durations of time than is currently possible,” the Oilprice article summed up. 

Now, just this week, an article from Space.com reported that “space is about to go nuclear — at least if private companies get their way.” The article is referencing developments from the 23rd annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference (CST), which took place in Washington, D.C. back in January. There, “a panel of nuclear technology experts and leaders in the commercial space industry spoke about developments of the technology that could propel future spacecraft faster and more efficiently than current systems can.”

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NASA is no stranger to nuclear power. The agency has already used nuclear energy to power its Mars rovers, its Cassini mission probe of Saturn and its rings, and the two Voyagers up there exploring the edges of our solar system as we speak. The nuclear energy that powered those projects, however, relied “on the passive decay of radioactive plutonium, converting heat from that process into electricity to power the spacecraft,” whereas, according to the panelists at the CST, the future of space industry electricity lies in “Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP), a technology developed in the 1960s and '70s that relies on the splitting, or fission, of hydrogen atoms.” This form of nuclear fission would need low-enriched uranium, a much less hazardous material. 

“An NTP-powered spacecraft would pump hydrogen propellant through a miniature nuclear reactor core. Inside this reactor core, high energy neutrons would split uranium atoms in fission reactions; those freed neutrons would smack into other atoms and trigger more fission. The heat from these reactions would convert the hydrogen propellent into gas, which would produce thrust when forced through a nozzle,” explained Space.com.

At least there is some good news for public health and the environment coming out of the space industry on the week that Trump announced that he wants to mine the moon

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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  • Neutron Bytes on April 10 2020 said:
    Hydrogen atoms are not "fissioned" in a nuclear thermal propulsion system. They are heated by a uranium fueled nuclear reactor and used to produce thrust through the rocket engine. Also, nuclear thermal rocket engines cannot be used to achieve escape velocity. Their intended use is that once the chemical fuels in the primary stages produce escape velocity, the nuclear engine can produce continuous thrust to speed up the transit to the moon or Mars.

    Note one other thing. In space more or less at the halfway point in the journey you need to think about managing velocity to be sure you enter a usable orbit around your destination prior to engaging the lander module. Finally, overall there has to be enough fuel onboard to come home at the same speed on the outbound leg or your technology advantage is lost.

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