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Powering Space Missions with Nuclear Science

Recently, the Trump administration inked its commitment to future space missions with a $19.5 billion dollar budget announcement to the U.S. Space Agency. Among the projects NASA has slated include a human mission to Mars sometime after 2030 and a Canada-U.S. partnership could help to provide the power to get there.

Studying the solar system is no easy feat. Minimal sunlight and severe weather conditions are just two challenges that face outer space explorations. On Mars, nighttime temperatures can fall below -70 degrees Celsius and violent dust storms can destroy solar panels. Harsh environments and ever evolving missions require an effective power and heat source for spacecraft.

Enter nuclear science and radioisotope power systems.

Billions of miles away from a gas station or electric charging station, radioisotope power systems (RPS) have allowed scientists to research and study the limits of our solar system. Electricity is produced from the decay of the isotope plutonium 238 (Pu-238). As the isotope decays it gives off a tremendous amount of heat energy which is converted into electricity. With a half-life of 88 years, a radioisotope power system is able to provide continuous energy for long term deep space missions. As compared to solar power, an RPS can reach into deep space where solar power is ineffective.

However, there is a limited supply of Pu-238 that is needed for deep space research leaving the future of deep space exploration potentially in the dark.

Enter a Canadian-U.S. collaboration and a proposal to shift space research into high gear. A partnership between Technical Solutions Management (TSM), Ontario Power Generation (OPG), Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and Pacific Northwest National Labs (PNNL) would support and augment the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) program to renew the production of Pu-238, allowing scientists to continue their exploration of the solar system.

“Our hope is to land a contract to expand the amount of Pu-238 that is available for space exploration,” according to Glen Elliott, Director, Business Development, Ontario Power Generation.

Mars Rover: Curiosity

If approved, the mission could be well on its way to powering future space ventures in the next 5 years, by 2022. The concept would rely on a commercial reactor to produce the necessary isotope, specifically OPG’s Darlington reactor.

“The flexibility of the plan makes it ideal. Depending on the mission requirements, it could be scaled up or down customizing the amount of fuel needed,” according to Elliott. “The Darlington reactor has online fueling capability and an ideal neutron flux so you can precisely control the irradiation time.”

A neutron flux is comprised of two elements; the speed and distance that the neutrons cover. Like football players on a field, the neutron flux is the speed at which the players are running and the total distance of the field that they cover.

The other benefit of the Darlington reactor is that it can produce the fuel needed for radioisotope power systems while performing its primary objective of producing electricity.

“This project is just another example of the broad economic and societal benefits of nuclear power. It provides clean, low-cost power, it helps in the medical world and if successful can be a part of the next generation of space travel,” said Jeff Lyash, President & Chief Executive Officer, Ontario Power Generation.

The proposal would help ensure an adequate global supply of Pu-238 for space missions and strengthen a Canada-U.S. partnership while creating jobs, boosting the economy and advancing the field of science exploration.

CNA2017

The Canadian Space Agency’s Nuclear Connection

A competition for two new astronaut spots launched by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) received over 3,000 applicants from outstanding Canadians looking to be part of the new frontier in space exploration. From a list of thousands, the race to space is getting narrow, just over a dozen candidates remain. The candidates are as different as their backgrounds and include military personnel, doctors and engineers.

Amongst those in the final running to be selected to join the CSA’s elite team is Alex DeLorey, a project manager for the Bruce Power Nuclear Refurbishment and a SNC-Lavalin team member.
DeLorey is hoping to be one of the final two to earn a coveted spot with the CSA.

Courtesy: Alex DeLorey

“The round of seventy-two was very physical, testing what you’d need to do to be successful on the job, including a grip test while wearing a space suit which is pressurized. The pressurized suit makes it harder to close your hands and demonstrates the difficulty of using tools in space. The round of thirty-two was survival testing,” according to DeLorey.

The survival testing included a series of drills that involved everything from simulating a helicopter crashing into ocean water to various emergency situations, such as fires and floods. To prepare for the trials, DeLorey spent time with the Milton fire department running through different scenarios that included re-enacting rescuing a person from a burning building; containing hazardous materials and rappelling down three stories on a rope. The man who looks to David Saint-Jacques as the astronaut he admires most, spent last summer learning to scuba dive, skydive and fly an airplane, all of this even before submitting an application.

“I had done quite a bit of research on the last recruitment campaign and tailored my preparation for it. I still fly at least once a week to keep my skills up and once it warms up I’ll try to get some scuba and skydiving in,” said DeLorey. “I have been going to the gym regularly at 6:00 am every weekday for the past four years and I also swim a few times a week.”

His strict regimen includes studying all things space related and keeping up with his French language training, even though he is already bilingual. Then there’s his day job as a Project Manager on the Bruce Power Refurbishment: A background which he believes has helped him in his outer space quest.

“I think it helped prepare me quite a bit. I’ve been on the reactor face for Wolsong (A nuclear power plant in South Korea) breathing out of a tube. The places and the situations are very stressful and they can be dangerous if you make wrong choices and so it has prepared me in that sense,” according to DeLorey. “Nuclear is a small industry but an international industry and I have experience of working with international teams so it’s given me quite a bit of preparation.”

The biggest challenge for this astronaut contender is time management. On top of the tremendous amount of training that has been required to get him this far, he continues to maintain his full-time job as a member of the SNC-Lavalin team. He also makes sure he can get out into the community and engage with students about the importance of pursuing your dreams and he recently became a dad for the first time. To make it all happen, DeLorey relies on a strong support network and he gives credit to his wife for his successes to date.

DeLorey speaking to students

Recently, the Trump administration signed a bill in support of NASA, support which could see a manned mission to Mars. It’s a mission this Canadian hopes he will be a part of.

“The plans for space missions in the future include sending astronauts beyond the moon for deep space testing and finally further to Mars,” stated DeLorey. “I would most like to be a part of any of those missions and get to be on the call back to Earth to tell everyone that we had made it to the destination and be a part of the excitement that would come from that.”