With the advancement of science and technology, we require our space missions to provide more and more results. Our MSL Curiosity and Perseverance rover demonstrates this fact. Perseverance is an exceptionally impressive set of techniques. These sophisticated rovers need a great deal of power to perform their tasks, and that means bulky and expensive power supplies.
Space exploration is an increasingly energy-demanding endeavor. Orbiters and flybys can perform their missions using solar energy, at least as far away as Jupiter. And ion engines could take spacecraft even further. But to truly understand distant worlds like the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, or even farther out Pluto, we will eventually need to land a rover and/or lander on them just as we did on Mars.
These missions require more energy to operate, and that usually means MMRTGs (Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators). But they are bulky, heavy, and expensive, which are three undesirable attributes of spacecraft. Each one cost more than $100 million. Is there a better solution?
Stephen Pole thinks there is.
Polly is a Research Scientist in the NanoPower Research Laboratories at Rochester Institute of Technology. His work focuses on something most of us have probably never heard of: the development, growth, characterization and incorporation of III-V materials by means of an organic vapor phase epitaxy (MOVPE).
While this sounds complicated to a non-specialist, space enthusiasts can easily relate to the idea that led to all of his work: a potential new way to power space missions.
Poly is working on what could be a revolutionary way to power spacecraft on long journeys to outer planets. It’s called a thermal radiation cell (TRC), and it’s similar to MMRTG. It uses radioactive isotopes as an energy source.
Poly is based on a technology called metal vapor phase epitaxy (MOVPE.) It uses chemical vapors to produce polycrystalline thin films. It is an industrial process used in optoelectronics to make things like light emitting diodes (LED). The MOVPE poly action is used to create Thermal Radiation Cells (TRCs).
TRCs use a radioisotope as MMRTG does and are based on heat from radioactive decay, but there is a difference. The atomization heats the TRC, which then emits light. The light then reaches the photovoltaic cell, which in turn produces electricity. It is a kind of combination of MMRTG and solar energy.
But Poly’s idea is much smaller, and that’s the holy grail of spacecraft engineering. “This device, driven by a radioisotope heat source, would allow an order of magnitude increase in mass specific power (~30 vs ~3 W/kg) and a volume decrease of three orders of magnitude (~0.2 vs ~212 L) when compared to a conventional multifunctional radioisotope heat generator ( MMRTG),” Polly explained in a brief press release.
Polley writes that these devices could help revolutionize our space exploration activities. It could lead to the proliferation of smaller spacecraft that don’t need to deploy large solar arrays or carry bulky, heavy MMRTGs. Technological advances are constantly shrinking scientific payloads, so if a power source can shrink in tandem, CubeSats can become even more useful.
“This will directly enable small-satellite missions to the outer planets as well as operations in permanent shadows such as the moon’s polar craters,” explains Polley. It could be the first use of the technology on a mission to Uranus. “We will analyze a radiant thermocouple to operate a CubeSat (or fleet of CubeSats) that can ride in tandem with the Flagship Uranus mission, and perform tasks such as providing information to atmospheric investigations, and obtaining a parallax view of the planet and its moons.”
We’re all along—or at least our minds and imaginations—when we send spacecraft into the solar system to explore nature. If Polley’s work pays off, and spacecraft can be built with smaller, more efficient power sources, the trip will become much more interesting.
Polley’s idea is to mark the first stage in NIAC, NASA’s innovative Advanced Concepts program. He has received funding to develop the idea further.
Provided by Universe Today
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