Mini Nuclear Reactors Could Power Space Colonies

Article written: 4 Dec , 2009
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

Growing up on Star Trek, I was always told that space was the final frontier. What they never told me was that space is about as friendly to the human body as being microwaved alive in a frozen tundra–in essence, shelter is a necessity.

Like any Earthen home or building, an off world shelter on the Moon or Mars will need energy to keep its residents comfortable (not to mention alive), and power outages of any sort will not be tolerated–unless a person desires to be radiated and frozen (which is probably not a great way to “kick the bucket”).

While some may look towards solar power to help keep the lights on and the heat flowing, it may be wiser instead to look at an upcoming “fission battery” from Hyperion Power Generation to power future colonies on the Moon, Mars, and perhaps an plasma rocket powered starship as well.

Originally created by Dr. Otis Peterson while on staff at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Hyperion Power Generation (which I’ll call HPG for short) has licensed Dr. Peterson’s miniature nuclear reactor which are actually small enough to fit inside a decent sized hot tub.

Despite their small stature (being 1.5 meters by 2.5 meters), one of these mini-reactors could provide enough energy to power 20,000 average sized American homes (or 70 MW’s of thermal energy in geek speak) and can last up to ten years.

Since HPG is designing these mini-nuclear reactors to require little human assistance (the “little” having to do with burying the reactors underground), these “nuclear batteries” would enable NASA (or a wealthy space company) to power an outpost on the Moon or Mars without having to rely upon the Sun’s rays–at least as a primary source for power.

HPG’s mini-reactors could also help power future star ships heading towards Jupiter or Saturn (or even beyond), providing enough energy to not only keep the humans on board alive and comfortable, but provide enough thrust via plasma rockets as well.

Scheduled to be released in 2013, these mini-reactors are priced at around $50 million each, which probably puts it outside the price range of the average private space corporation.

Despite the cost, it may be wise for NASA, the European Space Agency, Japan, India and (if the US is in a really good trusting mood) China to consider installing one (or several) of these mini-reactors for their respective bases, as it could enable humanity to actually do what has been depicted in scifi films and television shows–seek out new homes on new worlds and spread ourselves throughout the universe.

Source: Hyperion Power Generation, Inc., Image Credit: NASA

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12 Responses

  1. Member
    Aqua says

    Nice… make mine able to power the ship that takes me there.. then power the habitat once we land!

    Oh yeah.. put superconducting coils around it to generate fields for an ionizing radiation shelter while you are at it!.

  2. SuperKevin says

    Nice, we got a great power source; now lets build an extremely fast ship to put it in. By fast I mean to Mars in a day, pick on me all you want, you know you want it.

  3. Silver Thread says

    Make it so!

  4. Vanamonde says

    The manufacture states this puppy is “Transportable by train, ship, truck”. Methinks they do not recommend shipping it by cargo plane. Do you really wanna put it on a rocket? And have to repeat this every 7 to 10 years? Now, if we can find some source of uranium either on the moon or some NEO, then I would be for it.

    I remain oppose to fission in this biosphere and very much oppose to launching fission material by rockets.

  5. Maxwell says

    There are ways to pack nuclear material so that its unlikely to be scattered if the rocket fails, but the containers are heavy. Likewise the more powerful reactor setups are also extremely heavy at present.

    The direction NASA is trying to take leans away from big rockets (because someones got it in their heads that less payload, fewer supplies and shorter range makes for a better beginning to an exploration mission…).
    So this probably wont happen until we recover from that path and get back to building Saturn V sized rockets again.

    I wouldn’t worry about the anti-nuke sentiment on the ground, since they wont have any say with the governments that are most likely to launch large reactors first.

  6. Prime says

    Again, NASA puts the cart in front of the horse. Anti-Gravity is the main consideration for space travel, and power.

    Going into deep space, without controlling gravity, is like jumping into the middle of the ocean without knowing how to swim.

    Lets see some real tecnology, NASA, not the status quo- throwing rocks out of a boat propusion.

    Everthing will fall into place, then, concerning space exploration, and powering colonies on other moons, and planets.


  7. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    I wouldn’t even worry about the anti-nuclear sentiment for terrestrial use, as it will be needed if one wants to keep this climate or at least if one wants to keep technology. Fusion is too far away not to need a fission patch between oil and sustainable energy.

    Everthing will fall into place

    Don’t you mean *fall upwards*? 😀

    [But in truth, anti-gravity falls: there isn’t any “negative” gravitational charge, nor can there be. The best we can do is counteract gravity, and it’s too expensive to do that with another gravitational source.

    So no go.]

    NASA is doing what they can within political limits. This is excellent and its basic technology is known to work.

    For pipe dreams and what it will give you, the organization you want is spelled “NADA”.

  8. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    My sense about planting nuclear power plants on the surface of planets is this might amount to creating pollution off Earth. Sending nuclear reactors into deep space which remain there don’t bother me too much. Yet I question whether we should plant these on Mars or the Moon so they remain there for a very long time.

    Anit-gravity is not likely to be developed. Gravity if a field which in a spacetime perspective focuses the spacetime paths, called geodesics, together. Anti-gravity involves spacetime configurations which defocus such paths. There are solutions to the Einstein field equations which do this. Yet the source of the spacetime curvature violates some energy conditions, in particular T^{00} > 0. The violation of this condition means the quantum field which acts as the source is highly pathological. It has no minimal bound, which means it can produce an infinite amount of energy or radiation by transitioning down an endless “lader” of quantum states.

    If you have two masses m and -m (positive and negative) you have a curious situation. For the positive mass the Newton’s second law gives

    ma = -G(-m^2)/r^2,

    so the positive mass is accelerated away from the negative mass by

    a = Gm/r^2.

    Now for the negative mass you have

    -ma = -G(-m^2)/r^2,

    and so the negative mass is accelerated towards the positive mass by

    a = -Gm/r^2.

    This is because the “charge” for gravity, which is mass, is also in the F(m) = ma. So the -m and +m will fly away with an acceleration and maintain a constant distance from each other. This sounds somewhat paradoxical, yet in a way since the total mass is m – m = 0 there is a net nothing accelerating away.

    Cheers LC

  9. Jorge says

    I don’t have the slightest objection to planting nuclear reactors in dead worlds. The problem of radiation is what it may do to living creatures, particularly of the human persuasion, not what it may do to environments which are swarming in radiation to start with.

    No Van Allen belts for the Moon or Mars, I’m afraid.

    So, I like this. Not to be sent up in a rocket, already functioning, which could cause serious trouble in case of catastrophic rocket failure, but to be built up there and fueled with local resources. There should be fissible materials on every rocky planet as there are on Earth.

    However, I sincerely fail to see the advantage nuclear reactors have over solar power for colonies in the Inner Solar System. Malfunctions can happen to either (which is why such systems have to be highly redundant), and solar power requires no fuel, unlike nuclear power. You never suffer shortages of solar power, or at least suffer them in a predictable, periodic manner, which allow you to plan the storage of whatever energy you need during the night. True, the two-week lunar nights may cause some problems, but if you solve them, you have an endless supply of free energy at your fingertips.

    Nuclear generators are really useful for the regions where the sun shines weakly. The outer system, interstellar space, that sort of place. But we won’t get threr any time soon, I’m afraid.

  10. Bravehart says

    @ LC.

    -Ma=-G(-m^2)/r^2 >>
    a=+MG(+Mm^2)/r^2>>? This is the paradox in
    Newtons second law!
    a< then +MG+Mm/r^2 right?
    We do not want to repel gravity, we want it to deflect it that will gives us motion! What we
    are working on is finding a "mirror" to deflect!
    We are getting close, you will here when we
    find it!

  11. Member
    Aqua says

    He3 nano-scale nuclear power plants powering thousands of mircoscopic ‘lab on a chip’ elemental analysis probes used to ‘seed’ the surfaces of comets? asteroids? planets? via the ‘shotgun’ approach to exploration?

  12. William928 says

    I’ve never quite understood the immense paranoia relative to nuclear power. It seems the only path to follow as we move forward with space travel/colonization. Until another renewable energy/propulsion technology is discovered, I don’t see much of an alternative.

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