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In the United States will develop compact nuclear batteries for deep space.

Published: 2023-01-18

The North American agency NASA has approved the development of ultra-compact radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) by the Rochester Institute of Technology. It is assumed that they will be used in cubesats and other new generation technology, the application of which can be found in deep space - where there is too little light for solar cells.

Most active satellites use solar panels to generate power, converting light into electricity. While they do their job well, in deep space, such as beyond the orbit of Mars, or on the Martian surface itself, where sandstorms rage, there is sometimes too little light, so the energy from solar cells is not enough.

The RTG alternative allows thermocouples to generate electricity from the heat released during the decay of radioisotopes. The principle has been known for a long time and is widely used on Earth.

The problem with these generators is that they are rather bulky. For example, the diameter of each pair used in the Perseverance rover is 64 cm, the length is 66 cm, and the weight is 45 kg. Each contains 4.8 kg of plutonium dioxide. As a result, RTGs can only be used in fairly large spacecraft. For example, Perseverance is a car the size of an SUV.

According to NASA, in the new project, the mass-specific energy consumption in comparison with a standard multi-purpose RTG will be increased from 3 to 30 W/kg with a decrease in volume by several orders of magnitude - from 212 to 0.2 liters.

If the new technology can be brought to practical use, it will power future missions to Jupiter, power equipment in always-shadowed craters in the lunar polar regions or cubesats - without the need for additional sources. For example, this will allow much more successful implementation of the Flagship Uranus mission to Uranus, within which a whole fleet of small satellites can be sent to the planet to provide research from different angles, “relay” communications and perform other tasks.