ESA found a way to get around using Russian fuel to power its ambitions in space.
FREMONT, CA: The European Space Agency (ESA) recently granted funding for a specific project to construct nuclear waste-powered batteries for use in space exploration. If the new technology works, it could enable operations in places where solar energy is scarce or nonexistent, like the dark side of the moon.
Americium, a radioactive element produced by plutonium decay, is thought to be able to produce enough heat to warm equipment and generate electricity to power functioning, according to researchers working with the ESA. Although this would be the first time americium has been utilised in this way, the European space programme needs innovation now more than ever.
The plutonium-238 used in today's batteries is a difficult and expensive ingredient to generate. Unfortunately, NASA only has enough resources to support its own goals, and the US and Russia hold the lion's share of the world's supplies. The ESA must now find a replacement, which is their only option.
To develop an americium battery, the ESA has set up 29 million Euros. The element is easier and less expensive to create. It also has lower potential energy than plutonium-238, but experts think the trade-offs will benefit the ESA.
Through a two-step procedure that involves irradiating neptunium-237 in a unique reactor, plutonium-238 is produced. Because americium is made from plutonium, which is employed in the types of nuclear reactors found in civil power plants, its production is significantly less expensive. Americium is more readily available than plutonium-238, hence it is roughly one-sixth more expensive to produce a single watt of power using it.
For Europe's space programme, it all comes down to having the ability to undertake missions without being reliant on US or Russian fuel sources. The current political climate shows that one can't always rely on allies. Despite the ESA's approval and the volume of knowledge now available on americium, this endeavour marks the first time it will be employed as a power source in this particular sort of battery. Before we deploy Europe's store of americium-rich nuclear waste to illuminate the dark side of the moon and other dim regions of space, scientists anticipate that there are still some hitches to iron out.
By the decade's end, americium battery technology is anticipated to be carried by ESA rockets. However, the ESA testing team will create unique prototypes for use in space-like settings on Earth over the following three years.
Once finalised, the new battery technology ought to make it possible for ESA astronauts and researchers to carry out solo trips or space studies without the necessary assistance of non-European research partners like the US or Russia. Long-term savings for the agency should also be expected; these savings could be put back into the space programme.
The ESA engineers still have to worry about maintaining the integrity of the radioactive materials and the safety of the crew who will be handling the batteries and operating the equipment they are utilised in, which should be a win-win situation for Europeans interested in the great beyond. They can't just reuse the old containers since producing the necessary energy requires more americium than plutonium. The ESA is creating specialised containers that can emit the heat produced by americium but not any of its radioactivity to do this.
Although there are no assurances in science, the research so far suggests that this is excellent news for Europe's plans to align its space programme with NASA's.