Friday, October 09, 2009
Here's an interesting article that has quite a bit of relevance for spaceflight - a team at University of Missouri has developed tiny nuclear batteries that produce power from the decay of radioactive isotopes, which is exactly the same way power is produced for deep space probes such as Voyager and Cassini. It's also, as the article notes, the way power is produced for pacemakers so this is not a scary invention at all in spite of the word nuclear in the title.
Though the focus here has been the development of as small a battery as possible rather than as powerful a battery as possible, it still may be beneficial to spaceflight in not only being a refinement of the technology but also showing that this type of nuclear power (completely different from splitting atoms) is not a scary thing. In 1997 there were some protests when Cassini was launched due to it carrying 33 kg of plutonium, as well as in 1999 when it flew by Earth.
The development of nuclear technology may also prove to be useful on the Moon when we begin moving away from the nearly permanently lit areas around the south pole and into parts that receive 14 days of darkness, since devices located there will either need to be powered by solar but with a large enough battery to withstand the 14 days of darkness or have a nuclear power source in which case it wouldn't matter. Then again, simple battery and solar technology is also continuing to develop so it's uncertain whether we will need to go the nuclear route when colonizing the Moon, which won't happen for at least another decade. By the planned date of 2020 we should have seen the popular development of electric cars for some eight years or so, and given the fact that range is really the only down side to an electric car we should see development focused mostly on that.
How far out in the Solar System can a probe go with solar power alone? Jupiter is about the limit.