Cosmic Space

President Trump boosts nuclear power in space

In what’s likely to be one of the last space policy initiatives of his administration, President Donald Trump today issued a directive that lays out a roadmap for nuclear power applications beyond Earth.

Space Policy Directive 6 calls on NASA and other federal agencies to advance the development of in-space nuclear propulsion systems as well as a nuclear fission power system on the moon.

“Space nuclear power and propulsion is a fundamentally enabling technology for American deep space missions to Mars and beyond,” Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council, said in a White House news release. “The United States intends to remain the leader among spacefaring nations, applying nuclear power technology safely, securely and sustainably in space.”

Space-based nuclear power isn’t exactly a new idea: NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission considered thermal nuclear propulsion – a concept that would have involved heating up propellants with a nuclear reactor – way back in the 1970s as part of Project NERVA.

A different kind of nuclear power, which relies on using the heat from radioactive decay to generate electricity, has been used to power space hardware ranging from Apollo lunar surface experiments to the Curiosity rover on Mars. (NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is due to land on Mars in February, also has a radioisotope power system.)

NASA once considered putting a nuclear electric propulsion system on a spacecraft known as the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, but that mission was canceled in 2005. Now there’s renewed interest in missions that require more power than can be generated by solar arrays – and that’s reviving interest in nuclear power for space applications.

Cosmic Space

Nuclear power on the moon? It could happen by 2028

Nuclear energy has played a role in lunar exploration since the golden days of the Apollo moon program, when radioisotope power systems provided the wattage for scientific experiments.

Today such systems continue to power interplanetary spacecraft, ranging from the decades-old Voyager probes in interstellar space to the Perseverance rover that’s on its way to Mars. And now the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA are kicking things up a notch.

Tracey Bishop, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear infrastructure programs at the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Office, provided a preview today during a virtual roundtable discussion focusing on the department’s role in space exploration.

“This summer the department, along with NASA, has initiated an activity to look at doing a demonstration for fission surface power systems on the moon in the 2027, 2028 time frame, ” Bishop said.

She said potential partners from the nuclear power industry as well as the aerospace industry showed up for a “very engaging Industry Day” last month. “We’re looking forward to issuing a request for proposals from industry sometime this fall,” Bishop said.

The lunar demonstration project would follow up on the research conducted as part of the NASA-DOE Kilopower program, which successfully demonstrated a small-scale nuclear power system in Nevada a couple of years ago.

And that’s not all: The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within DOE, is working with the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on a road map for developing nuclear thermal propulsion systems.

“What DARPA is trying to do is, they’re trying to have a demonstrator that will fly in the 2025 time frame,” said Kevin Greenaugh, assistant deputy administrator for strategic partnership programs.

It’s early in the process, but federal officials eventually plan to turn to industry experts for help in designing what basically would be a nuclear rocket engine, Greenaugh said.

The project — known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO — would use nuclear power to heat rocket propellants to temperatures high enough to produce thrust. Such a system would be two to five times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion, resulting in huge time savings for missions ranging from repositioning satellites to sending astronauts to Mars.

NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission tried to get a nuclear rocket called NERVA off the ground back in the 1960s.

“We did enough to understand what it was going to take, what the technical challenges are, and the fact that these [technologies] really are enabling for doing things such as certainly sending crews to Mars,” said Ralph McNutt, the chief scientist for space science at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

Project NERVA fizzled in the post-Apollo era, due to shrinking space budgets as well as growing safety concerns about nuclear power. But now America’s space ambitions are on the rise again, and next-generation nuclear power concepts are raising confidence that the safety concerns can be adequately addressed.

“The advanced modular reactors are certainly adaptable to be used in earthbound applications, too,” said former U.S. Rep. Robert Walker, who now heads a space policy consulting firm called moonWalker Associates. “That’s where a lot of the work is being done right now.”

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said following through on the concept could yield big payoffs.

“Nuclear propulsion could potentially cut the time of space travel to Mars by as much as half, which increases mission flexibility — which can be a true game changer for a Mars mission,” he said. “We’d like to get to Mars and back on ‘one tank of gas.’ That’s our goal, and that’s what we’re working for.”

Paul Dabbar, DOE’s under secretary for science, added that “it’s not just about getting to where we’re going, but it’s also about what we want to do when we get there.”

That’s where the interest in surface-based nuclear power comes to the fore. After all, if billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk envision building whole cities on the moon and on Mars, the power’s got to come from somewhere.

Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said future space settlements will almost certainly be built as public-private partnerships — with federal agencies like NASA and DOE blazing the technological trails for commercial ventures to follow.

“NASA has seen this in spades, when they did the development of resupplying cargo and crew to the ISS [International Space Station],” he said. “The government estimates that it saved between 20 and 30 billion dollars, compared to the traditional methods.”

So what will those extraterrestrial power systems look like? Will the moon go all-nuclear? Probably not, said Ben Reinke, executive director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Strategic Planning and Programs. Off-Earth settlements are more likely to rely on a mix of solar and nuclear power — plus batteries to store surplus electricity, as well as stores of hydrogen and oxygen that could be produced from ice on the moon or Mars.

“What you’re really talking about is a very small microgrid that has the same types of challenges that we have here on Earth,” he said. “You need some amount of power that would be baseload power. … And then on top of that, you would probably have some types of variable power, and a storage and distribution system that works for the proper size of that case.”

It turns out that nuclear fission isn’t the only option for energy on the moon: Reinke said lightweight, highly efficient perovskite solar cells could come into play. And who knows? Decades from now, nuclear fusion may even be part of the mix, with ample supplies of helium-3 fuel available on the lunar surface.

All of those technologies are part of the Department of Energy’s portfolio — so maybe Secretary Brouillette has a point when he says the DOE in his agency’s acronym could just as well stand for “Department of Exploration.”

Full disclosure: I served as the moderator for today’s virtual roundtable presentation, titled “Department of Exploration: Because You Can’t Get to Space Without the U.S. Department of Energy.”


TerraPower advances plans for next-gen nuclear power

BELLEVUE, Wash. — TerraPower, the nuclear energy venture that’s backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has gotten a boost on two fronts in its campaign to pioneer a new generation of safer, less expensive reactors.

On Aug. 24, the Idaho National Laboratory announced that an industry team including TerraPower has been selected to begin contract negotiations to design and build the Versatile Test Reactor, a federally financed facility that’s meant to test advanced nuclear reactor technologies. The team is led by Bechtel National Inc., with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy among the other industry partners. (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is on the concept development team.)

“We received excellent proposals from industry, which is indicative of the support to build a fast-spectrum neutron testing facility in the United States,” Mark Peters, director of the Idaho Falls lab, said in a news release. “We are excited about the potential for working with the BNI-led team.”

The plan calls for work on the project to begin in 2021, and for the reactor to be completed by as early as 2026.

Then, on Aug. 27, the Bellevue-based venture announced that it’s working with GE Hitachi on a reactor architecture that could supplement solar and wind energy systems with always-on electricity.

The system architecture, known as Natrium, would involve building cost-competitive, sodium fast reactors as well as molten-salt energy storage systems. The heat generated by the 345-megawatt reactors could be stored in the molten-salt tanks, and converted into grid electricity to smooth out fluctuations in renewable energy.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Cosmic Science

ITER fusion project celebrates start of assembly

The $25 billion international fusion project known as ITER marked the start of its five-year reactor assembly process today with a ceremony tailored for the coronavirus era.

French President Emmanuel Macron was the headliner, appearing on a big screen set up at the construction site in France’s Provence region.

“ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future,” Macron told a small gathering of dignitaries who were spread out in the ITER Assembly Hall to observe social-distancing guidelines. “Breakthroughs in human history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty.”

Difficulties in the form of rising costs and delayed schedules have dogged ITER for more than a decade. When I visited the site in 2007, planners anticipated that operations would start up in 2016 — and the project’s cost was listed at $13 billion.

In an interview with Science’s Daniel Clery, ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot estimated that the rate of spending is around €1 million ($1.2 million) per day.  Clery’s report also noted that the first piece of the facility’s doughnut-shaped tokamak reactor, the nearly 100-foot-wide cryostat base, was lowered into the assembly pit in May.

Components for ITER are being provided as in-kind contributions by the project’s seven members: China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Indian contractors built the cryostat, for example, while the U.S. is responsible for the central solenoid magnet (built by General Atomics).

Experiments at ITER are expected eventually to surpass the break-even point for a nuclear fusion reaction — a small-scale version of the reaction that powers the sun. That could blaze a trail for future commercial reactors potentially capable of generating cheap, clean, safe, abundant electricity.

ITER follows the conventional approach to fusion power, known as magnetic confinement fusion. Meanwhile, several commercial ventures — including General Fusion, based near Vancouver, B.C. — are trying to commercialize fusion power on a shorter timetable using less conventional approaches.


TerraPower, GE Hitachi team up on nuclear project

Versatile Test Reactor design
This cutaway graphic shows the design of the Versatile Test Reactor. (DOE Illustration)

TerraPower, the nuclear energy venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and headquartered in Bellevue, Wash., is collaborating with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy in pursuit of a public-private partnership to design and construct the Versatile Test Reactor for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.


General Fusion gets a $65M boost for power plant

General Fusion plasma injector
General Fusion says it has the world’s largest and most powerful plasma injector, capable of creating a ring of hydrogen plasma 6 feet in diameter and heating it to millions of degrees. This machine is a prototype of the fuel injector for a fusion power plant. (General Fusion Photo)

Burnaby, B.C.-based General Fusion says it has closed on a $65 million equity financing round that will spark the launch of a program to design, construct and operate a demonstration nuclear fusion power plant.

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Heliogen claims solar power breakthrough

Heliogen plant
Heliogen’s commercial facility in Lancaster, Calif., was able to concentrate sunlight at a temperature high enough to replace fossil fuels in industrial processes. (Heliogen Photo)

By Todd Bishop and Alan Boyle

solar energy tech company founded by serial entrepreneur and inventor Bill Gross — and backed by investors including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates — says it has developed a way to create concentrated solar energy at temperatures hot enough to replace fossil fuels in industrial processes that contribute significantly to global carbon emissions.

It works by using cutting-edge computer vision technology to align a large array of mirrors to reflect sunlight to a precise target. The process creates immense heat, exceeding 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 Fahrenheit), that can replace traditional fuels such as coal, gas and oil in the production of materials such as cement, steel and petrochemicals.

The Los Angeles-based company, Heliogen, said this morning that it achieved the high-temperature milestone at its commercial facility in Lancaster, Calif.

It described the innovation as a “major step towards solving climate change” that could dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from industrial processes. Such processes are thought to account for one-fifth of the world’s carbon emissions.

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PNNL plays role in new AI research center

Roberto Gioiosa
Roberto Gioiosa, a senior research scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, will lead a new research center focusing on challenges in artificial intelligence. (PNNL Photo)

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is joining forces with two other research powerhouses to pioneer a new $5.5 million research center created by the U.S. Department of Energy to focus on the biggest challenges in artificial intelligence.

The Center for Artificial Intelligence-Focused Architectures and Algorithms, or ARIAA, will promote collaborative projects for scientists at PNNL in Richland, Wash., at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, and at Georgia Tech. PNNL and Sandia are part of the Energy Department’s network of research labs.

ARIAA will be headed by Roberto Gioiosa, a senior research scientist at PNNL. As center director, he’ll be in charge of ARIAA’s overall vision, strategy and research direction. He’ll be assisted by two deputy directors, Sandia’s Rajamanickam and Georgia Tech Professor Tushar Krishna.

The creation of the new center is in line with the White House’s efforts to encourage partnerships in AI research. Last month, Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced the establishment of the DOE Artificial Intelligence and Technology Office to serve as a coordinating hub for all the work that’s being done in his department.

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Peek inside TerraPower’s nuclear research lab

TerraPower lab
A panoramic view of TerraPower’s laboratory shows a full-scale fuel assembly test stand at the center of the frame – with lab facility manager Brian Morris pointing out details toward the left of the frame. The circle that’s painted on the floor indicates how big the nuclear containment vessel would be. Click on the picture for a larger version. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – Just a stone’s throw away from Interstate 90’s crush of traffic, a decade-old startup founded by Bill Gates is running tests aimed at building the next generation of nuclear reactors.

You’ll find no more than a smidgen of radioactive material at the privately funded venture, known as TerraPower. But if Microsoft’s co-founder and TerraPower’s other leaders have their way, the technologies being pioneered at the 10,000-square-foot lab could boost electrical grids around the world.

We got a rare look inside the lab, which is housed alongside facilities for Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue’s Eastgate neighborhood, and we heard from TerraPower’s executives about the connection between Gates’ past as a co-founder of Microsoft and his vision for future energy innovation.

“If you think about Bill Gates’ accomplishments in computing, we’re really trying to repeat that for nuclear energy,” said Chris Levesque, TerraPower’s president and CEO. “We think nuclear is overdue for technology demonstrations.”

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AI researchers want to make it easier to be green

High-performance computing
High-performance computing is becoming the lifeblood of artificial intelligence research. (Intel Photo)

The development of ever more powerful models for artificial intelligence is revolutionizing the world, but it doesn’t come cheap. In a newly distributed position paper, researchers at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence argue that more weight should be given to energy efficiency when evaluating research.

The AI2 researchers call on their colleagues to report the “price tag” associated with developing, training and running their models, alongside other metrics such as speed and accuracy. Research leaderboards, including AI2’s, regularly rate AI software in terms of accuracy over time, but they don’t address what it took to get those results.

Of course, cutting-edge research can be expensive in all sorts of fields, ranging from particle physics done at multibillion-dollar colliders to genetic analysis that requires hundreds of DNA sequencers. Financial cost or energy usage isn’t usually mentioned in the resulting studies. But AI2’s CEO, Oren Etzioni, says that times are changing – especially as the carbon footprint of energy-gobbling scientific experiments becomes more of a concern.

“It is an ongoing topic for many scientific communities, the issue of reporting costs,” Etzioni, one of the position paper’s authors, told GeekWire. “I think what makes a difference here is the stunning escalation that we’ve seen” in the resources devoted to AI model development.

One study from OpenAI estimates that the computational resources required for top-level research in deep learning have increased 300,000 times between 2012 and 2018, due to the rapid development of more and more complex models. “This is much faster than Moore’s Law, doubling every three or four months,” Etzioni said.

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