Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Powering Space; Radical Oppositions

curiosity_spiritFrom Digital Journal:

Engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center installed a nuclear power source Thursday onto the Mars rover set to launch this month. The rover, named Curiosity, is the latest in unmanned missions to Mars, and is expected to provide new evidence about Mars history, including clues as to whether the Red Planet ever harbored life.

Worth a read. This bit gave us an evil tingle:

The nuclear source is also less affected by weather and daylight conditions on Mars, factors that have hampered previous missions, as when the twin Mars Exploration Rovers encountered dust storms that covered their solar panels while operating on Mars from 2004 to 2011.

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The New York Time’s Green blog tries some pushback on Curiosity:

One alternative is to develop a better way to convert heat into electricity in space. The National Academy report said that the method NASA uses now is only about 6 percent efficient. A Stirling Engine system could produce five times as much electricity from each unit of heat, reducing the need for plutonium, but it has many moving parts and has not been adapted to space use.

But the response so far has been to use solar cells whenever possible. Steven W. Squyres, a professor of astronomy at Cornell who is the chief scientist for the Opportunity and Spirit rovers, said: “You always use solar when you can; it’s simpler, cheaper, just easier to do. You only use nuclear when you have to.’’

And one of those instances where you have to use nuclear is in Curiosity, because it is heavy (as in, one ton heavy) and equipment-packed and needs considerably more electricity to operate than its smaller predecessors – more than solar power can generate. (Plus there are those dust issues.) It almost feels like the pro-con debates that solar and nuclear advocates have on terra firma transferred to the depth of space.

But, well, earlier probes like Spirit and Opportunity performed well enough on solar energy and I expect Curiosity will be fine with nuclear energy (actually, the heat from plutonium-238 will be directly converted to electricity). Everybody gets a chance to shine.

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Agence Presse-France has an interesting enough article about protests against used nuclear fuel from Germany being carted over to France. We’ve covered that before here and there isn’t a lot new in the article, but this caught my eye:

France produces a higher proportion of its power in reactors than any other country in the world, and its electricity bills are around 25 percent cheaper than in its neighbors, a boon to industry.

“A boon to industry?” Well, probably so, but it seems odd to leave out “a boon to every user of electricity in France.”

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From the same article:

"Beyond the danger that this waste poses, we're demonstrating our radical opposition to a means of production that means we'll always need more power. We're against endless growth," said 24-year-old Anna, from Paris.

Okay. Efficiency fan, I guess.

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See, if you don’t give your annoying relatives the power to annoy you, then you won’t be annoyed by them. You can eat as much as you want, zone out in front of the TV in grandma’s comfiest chair, play games with your little nephews and nieces (which almost always involve their bouncing off your stomach somehow), bicker with your old Republican cousin on how Stevenson was robbed in the ‘56 elections, and dream of all those sales you’ll want to avoid on Friday. And be happy. And give thanks.

Curiosity on the left, Spirit on the right.

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