NASA Funds Research into Advanced Nuclear Power System for Spacecraft

Graphic depiction of Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration (APPLE). (Credits: E Nemanick)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA is funding research into an advanced nuclear power system capable of providing future spacecraft with kilowatts of power.

The space agency provided a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase II grant to E. Joseph Nemanick of the Aerospace Corporation for the Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration project. The grant is worth $600,000 for a two-year study. Nemanick was earlier awarded a NIAC Phase I grant worth $175,000.

The Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration (APPLE) is a low mass, high reliability spacecraft power architecture that merges the extensive heritage of radioisotope power generation with a radiation-hard battery in an integrated modular system which can enable a wide range of vehicle and mission designs. A modular power architecture will open up the design space for space vehicle bus by enabling power designs to fit the mission for any vehicle shape or size, from 10’s of Watts to kilowatts,” the proposal abstract said.

“The Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration is an enabling architecture for solar system exploration with low mass vehicles. This proposal will develop an advanced vehicle power architecture that integrates lightweight radioisotope power with robust, radiation hard energy storage in a modular, scalable power system, demonstrate APPLE full system power generation and storage function,” the document added.

The proposal abstract follows.

Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration (APPLE)
E. Joseph Nemanick
The Aerospace Corporation
NIAC Phase II
Amount: $600,000
Length: 2 years

The Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration (APPLE) is a low mass, high reliability spacecraft power architecture that merges the extensive heritage of radioisotope power generation with a radiation-hard battery in an integrated modular system which can enable a wide range of vehicle and mission designs. A modular power architecture will open up the design space for space vehicle bus by enabling power designs to fit the mission for any vehicle shape or size, from 10’s of Watts to kilowatts. 

APPLE uses small 238PuO2 tiles coupled to high efficiency thermoelectric devices joined to a thermal radiator that also serves as a 5Wh solid state radiation hard battery in a 10 x 10 x 1.7 cm tile. The unoptimized current design device is estimated to produce at least 1.2 We and last at least 15 years (238Pu half-life is 87 years). Moreover, in addition to power generation this power tile can be placed on the vehicle surface to provide heat for internal components or in a dual sided configuration on a boom-type extension to provide more power (~2 We/tile). 

The Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration is an enabling architecture for solar system exploration with low mass vehicles. This proposal will develop an advanced vehicle power architecture that integrates lightweight radioisotope power with robust, radiation hard energy storage in a modular, scalable power system, demonstrate APPLE full system power generation and storage function. This proposal will then design deep space vehicle bus and mission plan for Solar Gravity Lens based on the APPLE architecture.