nasa and darpa are reviving our atomic age dreams once again
From the world of The Jetsons and other retro-futuristic tales from the 1950s and 1960s comes a distinct aesthetic and standard set of amazing technologies that still sound like fiction. Sleek domes and spires, bubbly rockets, glowing ray guns, and flying cars in bright colors graced the covers of countless books from the end of the Golden Age of Science Fiction that gave us works from Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury that still very much set the rules of the genre. What was that design aesthetic called? Why, atompunk, of course.
You see, when nuclear energy became mainstream, futurists and engineers envisioned a world ran on reactors of every size and shape. We were going to get nuclear planes, and nuclear cars, and nuclear rockets, and hell, nuclear everything. Well, that is, until the public discovered that we still had issues controlling radiation and heavy shielding required for all these applications would make many of these visions infeasible and unrealistic. With the panic of the Three Mile Island leak and the shock and awe of Chernobyl, those dreams were dead.
But despite the leak at Fukushima seemingly putting the nail in the coffin of nuclear power, an underreported story is that it’s quietly mounting a comeback. Politicians and engineers realize that effective transitions away from fossil fuels require fission as a backstop, and tasked with ever more ambitious missions, NASA and international space agencies want to bring back the idea of nuclear-powered rockets and micro-reactors, giving a whole new generation of nuke tech a much needed boost of publicity and cachet.
brand new reactors, brand new possibilities
When you think of nuclear energy, you probably imagine massive power plants with reactors the size of houses, like the ones in Chernobyl and Fukushima. But those are archaic relics when you see what’s being seriously studied and proposed today, among them a helium cooled micro reactor that easily fits inside a standard shipping container and produces up to 20 megawatts of power. It may not sound impressive, but just compare it with the International Space Station’s dinky energy budget of 120 kilowatts and you can see why NASA is raising a brow.
Technically, the space agency has been interested in nuclear spacecraft for many decades, but only now does the technology seem on the verge of being safely miniaturized so it could be launched into space, attached to a spaceship, and used to propel it across the solar system in record time. Nuclear electric propulsion could take us to Mars in less than two months while also providing plenty of power for creature comforts, reserve batteries, and maybe even some sort of magnetic shielding from cosmic rays to protect the astronauts on board.
This is why NASA wants to launch a prototype with DARPA’s help by 2027 and see how far it can push the demonstrator after that. Of course, it won’t be easy. Small demonstrators would carry little fuel and pose only minimal risk. Full blown nuclear spacecraft and precursors to something the size of an aircraft carrier in space would require far more caution and may need to have all their parts launched separately to minimize risks of contamination on a catastrophic failure of a launch. Just one accident could once again shelve these programs for decades.
from radiation, to electricity, to the moon and mars
Hold on a minute, you might say, how exactly do you go from a nuclear reactor in a spaceship to thrust? In nuclear thermal propulsion, liquid propellant like hydrogen is pumped through a reactor and heated until it becomes a gas shot out of nozzles. In nuclear electric, the electricity generated by a reactor charges a noble gas like argon and xenon, strips all the electrons from their atoms and creates ions which are accelerated away from the craft along electromagnetic fields as in your standard ion thrusters.
But there’s a small catch. Nuclear thermal propulsion is great for generating significant thrust quickly, perfect for launches and maneuvers in gravity wells of moons and planets, but it lacks the efficiency required for on-demand deep space maneuvers because it still uses a fair bit of liquid propellant. On the other hand, an ion engine powered by a nuclear reactor can’t provide the explosive oomph to leave a planet or escape its orbit, but sipping its supply of noble gases, it can provide steady thrust over years on end that adds up to insane acceleration.
To get the both of both worlds, NASA and DARPA are working on a hybrid design that can both produce the explosive thrust we associate with rockets, and the potentially years long burn of ion engines that could accelerate immense vessels to velocities that would make New Horizons — which is currently the fastest craft ever launched from Earth — look like a narcoleptic tortoise nursing a broken leg. Given how well we understand nuclear fission at the point, and how often we used even older reactors on naval vessels, this experiment seems bound for success.
merging atompunk and cyberpunk
But not only would successful nuclear spaceflight experiments enable for amazing missions with increasingly cheaper, reusable rockets, some of which are now being 3D printed, cutting costs even more, they could also show the new reactors’ promise to fundamentally improve how we get our energy. Forget massive power plants that take decades to build and start imagining vast networks of microgrids keeping the lights on from many years at a time, with massive plants on standby, ready to crank out gigawatts of energy, but only when absolutely required.
Over the past five decades, we’ve also learned a lot about radiation and how to safely recycle nuclear waste, as well as how to dispose of it, and how to protect reactors from seismic activity. This would actually be especially easy and efficient with micro-reactors and would allow us to deploy them just about anywhere. Far from being a health concern, they would be a massive upgrade over the often vast amounts of radiation that mining and burning fossil fuels produces. Our only limitation would be the resiliency of our data transmission infrastructure.
It may have taken us a long time and multiple setbacks to understand how to harness some of the most energy dense natural resources on Earth, and it’s going to take a us a while to realize that and make the revolutionary changes and inventions envisioned almost a century ago ho hum reality, but we’re getting there, starting with nuclear spacecraft and, hopefully, ending with self-sustaining infinitely portable microgrids. Well, at least until fusion finally comes along to make nuclear power even safer…