European Space Agency seeking radioactive power for space missions

Image Credit:engineeringnews

For the European Space Agency's study into dynamic radioactive power systems (RPS), the worldwide engineering and consulting firm Tractebel, 

based in Belgium, has been chosen to serve as the consortium's leader (ESA). The research RPS would use plutonium-238 as fuel (Pu-238).

ESA had already given Tractebel a contract to look into the viability of making Pu-238 in Europe.

The majority of Pu-238 produced throughout the years (all in Russia or the US) has been utilised to power spaceships because it cannot be used in nuclear bombs

The new ESA contract advances and completes that work.

Image Credit:jobs.esa

Until now, the ESA has powered its spacecraft with solar power sources. However, these are only effective for craft travelling quite close to the Sun. 

They offer very little electricity in the outer solar system. For distant space missions, the Americans and the Russians have deployed radioactive power systems based on Pu-238 for many years

 Such systems must also be developed by ESA if it is to successfully explore the outer Solar System.

Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators are the name given to modern RPS (RTGs).

These have low conversion efficiency, therefore a large amount of fuel is required to generate the same amount of power

RTGs must therefore be quite large, increasing the bulk of the spacecraft that must be launched and lowering the payload capacity for scientific instruments

The project's goal is to create a new generation of RPS that is much more efficient than present RTGs (and hence smaller and lighter).

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