February 25, 2019
Web Feature

Nuclear, Space Experts Converge on PNNL for Annual Meeting

Researchers from PNNL and other national laboratories, universities, private firms, and government agencies like NASA gather to share the latest findings in nuclear technology, space exploration, and related fields.

New Horizons Pluto

Artist’s rendition of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto.” The image is “Courtesy of NASA.”

Imagine standing on the shore of the Olympic Peninsula, tossing a bottle into the ocean, and then – years later – having it wash up precisely where you planned – on the steps of the Opera House in Sydney, Australia – after the bottle made an astonishing 13,000 trips around the globe. All planned, every twist and turn, to the millisecond, and all made possible by a tiny, sophisticated power source.

Imagine that trip for that little bottle and you have a sense of what scientists go through as they chart out the journeys of spacecraft exploring the furthest reaches of our solar system – and beyond.

It’s nuclear technology that makes these journeys through the heavens possible. And this week, PNNL will be a hotbed of activity on the topic as the lab hosts more than 150 scientists at the annual Nuclear and Emerging Technologies for Space Conference sponsored by the American Nuclear Society. Researchers from PNNL and other national laboratories, universities, private firms, and government agencies like NASA will share the latest findings in nuclear technology, space exploration, and related fields.

The meeting at Discovery Hall runs Monday through Wednesday, Feb. 25-27, with tours of the B-Reactor and LIGO slated for Thursday. The conference is sponsored in part by NSD and EED.

NSD scientist Jeff Katalenich, who has done research on new ways to process plutonium-238 – the fuel of choice for spacecraft today – is the chair of the technical program. The organizing committee also includes PNNL scientists Andy Prichard and Dion Sunderland.

Guest speakers include:

  • Franklin Chang Diaz, a former astronaut who logged more than 1,600 hours in space on seven missions. He is now CEO of Ad Astra Rocket Co., where he is investigating new space propulsion technologies.
  • Bill Foster (via video), a physicist by training, who represents the Illinois 11th congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA and director of Langley Research Center. He has led NASA’s space technology programs, focusing on developing and demonstrating technologies for human and robotic exploration of the solar system.
  • John Kelly, president of the American Nuclear Society and former chief technology officer of DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy.
  • Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast of the U.S. Air Force, commander, Air Education and Training Command, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas.
  • Ralph McNutt of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and a co-investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto.
  • Aaron Miles of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, recently on assignment to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Powering our way across the cosmos

Discussions at NETS will cross a number of areas, including power sources needed to create sustainable human outposts on Mars, options for nuclear propulsion, new lightweight materials, and methods to shield radiation.

A hot topic will be space fuel – how to propel a spacecraft billions of miles across the cold emptiness of space to get to its destination and then fulfill years’ worth of sophisticated maneuvers and experiments.

Scientists envision nuclear power in a variety of forms to power these spacecraft. Most used is the RTG or radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which gives off heat as a result of natural radioactive decay. The heat is converted to electricity to power everything on the craft. Sometimes radioisotope heaters are used to keep critical components warm on solar-powered vehicles.

Katalenich will discuss his work on a material that is the heart of the RTG -- Pu-238. In one session, he will discuss the relevance of the research to a project led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where scientists are studying the feasibility of a robotic lander mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. The PNNL work involves creating a radioisotope heat source that provides both electricity for the device and heat to allow the device to melt and break through ice.

Another PNNL group led by Lance Hubbard will discuss its work studying a radioactive battery – one that would use slow radioactive decay to supply a very low amount of power, for a very long time. Hubbard’s team is developing ways to prevent damage to critical nearby electronics that can occur when the components are exposed to radiation during a space mission that could take decades. The power produced from the battery would be miniscule – just enough to power the sensor that governs the compass on a cell phone, for instance – but it would be crucial to keeping critical sensors operating. One benefit of the device: There is no radioactive waste once the betavoltaic device dies.

Space exploration – a diversity of effort

One track will focus on the increasing commercialization and globalization of space exploration. Scientist Bhavya Lal will lead a discussion of the trend toward increased involvement of private firms and governments beyond the traditional players. Lal, who has studied global trends in space exploration extensively, will discuss the emergence of a commercial space nuclear enterprise. There are more than a dozen companies active in the nuclear area of space exploration, a subset of the nearly 2,000 companies vying for a piece of space exploration.

Lal is an expert on engineering systems applied to space and is with the Science and Technology Policy Institute of the Institute for Defense Analyses. Her talk at NETS will come just days after Israel launched the first privately funded spacecraft intended to land on the moon.

Published: February 25, 2019