Here on Earth power is often just a wall socket or extension cord away, but once you head out of the atmosphere you have to be more creative. For missions that remain relatively close to the Sun, solar panels are able to power the craft involved, but past Mars, there is just not enough light. That is why many missions, such as the Voyager spacecraft, instead rely on nuclear reactors that were first demonstrated in 1965. Now researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory and NASA have developed a new, more powerful nuclear reactor for future space missions.
The heart of the currently used space power systems is plutonium 238, which releases heat as it decays. The supply of this isotope may run short in the future, and impede future deep space missions, which is why the researchers at LANL have created a new design which uses uranium instead. Surrounding the uranium core and boron carbide control rod is a beryllium reflector embedded with eight heat pipes. These heat pipes direct the heat from the core to Sterling engines, which convert the heat to electricity. The whole design has been designed with safety, simplicity, and efficiency in mind, so no accidents could endanger the public.
The researchers have tested the principles of the design already and successfully generated 24 W of power, but an actual reactor for space travel would run hotter and generate more power. This additional power will be greatly appreciated by those designing space missions, as they are currently limited to about the energy requirement of two light bulbs.