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- Radioisotope power systems (RPS) have been essential to the U.S. exploration of outer space. RPS have two primary uses: electrical power and thermal power. To provide electrical power, the RPS uses the heat produced by the natural decay of a radioisotope (e.g., plutonium-238 in U.S. RPS) to drive a converter (e.g., thermoelectric elements or Stirling linear alternator). As a thermal power source the heat is conducted to whatever component on the spacecraft needs to be kept warm; this heat can be produced by a radioisotope heater unit (RHU) or by using the excess heat of a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). As of 2010, the U.S. has launched 41 RTGs on 26 space systems. These space systems have ranged from navigational satellites to challenging outer planet missions such as Pioneer 10/11, Voyager 1/2, Galileo, Ulysses, Cassini and the New Horizons mission to Pluto. In the fall of 2011, NASA plans to launch the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) that will employ the new Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) as the principal power source. Hundreds of radioisotope heater units (RHUs) have been launched to provide warmth to Apollo 11, used to provide heating of critical components in a seismic experiment package, Pioneer 10/11, Voyager 1/2, Galileo, Cassini, Mars Pathfinder, MER rovers, etc. to provide temperature control to critical spacecraft electronics and other mechanical devices such as propulsion system propellant valves. A radioisotope (electrical) power source or system (RPS) consists of three basic elements: (1) the radioisotope heat source that provides the thermal power, (2) the converter that transforms the thermal power into electrical power and (3) the heat rejection radiator. Figure 1 illustrates the basic features of an RPS. The idea of a radioisotope power source follows closely after the early investigations of radioactivity by researchers such as Henri Becquerel (1852-1908), Marie Curie (1867-1935), Pierre Curie (1859-1906) and R. J. Strut. Almost 100 years ago, in 1913, English physicist H. G. J. Moseley (1887-1915) constructed the first nuclear battery using a vacuum flask and 20 mCi of radium (Corliss and Harvey, 1964, Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1913). After World War II, serious interest in radioisotope power systems in the U.S. was sparked by studies of space satellites such as North American Aviation s 1947 report on nuclear space power and the RAND Corporation s 1949 report on radioisotope power. (Greenfield, 1947, Gendler and Kock, 1949). Radioisotopes were also considered in early studies of nuclear-powered aircraft (Corliss and Harvey, 1964). In 1951, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) signed several contracts to study a 1-kWe space power plant using reactors or radioisotopes. Several of these studies, which were completed in 1952, recommended the use of RPS. (Corliss and Harvey, 1964). In 1954, the RAND Corporation issued the summary report of the Project Feedback military satellite study in which radioisotope power was considered (Lipp and Salter, 1954, RAND). Paralleling these studies, in 1954, K. C. Jordan and J. H. Birden of the AEC s Mound Laboratory conceived and built the first RTG using chromel-constantan thermocouples and a polonium-210 (210Po or Po-210) radioisotope heat source (see Figure 2). While the power produced (1.8 mWe) was low by today s standards, this first RTG showed the feasibility of RPS. A second thermal battery was built with more Po-210, producing 9.4 mWe. Jordan and Birden concluded that the Po-210 thermal battery would have about ten times the energy of ordinary dry cells of the same mass (Jordan and Birden, 1954). The heat source consisted of a 1-cm-diameter sphere of 57 Ci (1.8 Wt) of Po-210 inside a capsule of nickel-coated cold-rolled steel all inside a container of Lucite. The thermocouples were silver-soldered chromel-constantan. The thermal battery produced 1.8 mWe.
- NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS) Collection.
- Document ID: 20120000731.
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