By Karl Grossman

A image of the explosion of the Space-X rocket

NASA has released a study claiming there is a need for continued use of plutonium-energized power systems for future space flights. It also says the use of actual nuclear reactors in space “has promise” but “currently” there is no need for them.

The space plutonium systems—called radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGS)—use the heat from the decay of plutonium to generate electricity in contrast to nuclear reactors, usually using uranium, in which fission or atom-splitting takes place.

The “Nuclear Power Assessment Study” describes itself as being done as a “collaboration” involving “NASA centers,” among them Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “the Department of Energy and its laboratories including Los Alamos National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories,” and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

The study, released this month, comes as major breakthroughs have been happening in the use of solar and other benign sources of power in space. The situation parallels that on Earth as solar and wind power and other clean, safe technologies compete with nuclear, oil, coal and other problematic energy sources and the interests behind them.

Examples of the use of benign power in space include the successful flight in May of a solar-powered spacecraft named LightSail in a mission funded by members of the Planetary Society. Astronomer Carl Sagan, a founder of the society, was among those who have postulating having a spacecraft with a sail propelled through the vacuum of space by the pressure of photons emitted by the sun. LightSail demonstrates his vision.

Yet, meanwhile, NASA cancelled its own solar sail mission scheduled for this year. It was to involve the largest solar sail ever flown. In 2010, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency made the first solar sail flight with a spacecraft it named Ikaros. Before the NASA solar flight cancellation, NASA last year declared on its website: “The concept of a huge, ultra-thin sail unfurling in space, using the pressure of sunlight to provide propellant-free transport, hovering and exploration capabilities, may seem like the stuff of science fiction. Now a NASA team developing the ‘In-Space Demonstration of a Mission-Capable Solar Sail’—or Solar Sail Demonstrator for short—intend[s] to prove the viability and value of the technology in the years to come.” NASA said the mission, also called Sunjammer, was cancelled by NASA because of problems ” with the project’s contractor, L’Garde of California.

And also, meanwhile, demonstrating that solar power can be harvested far out in space, the Rosetta space probe of the European Space Agency (ESA), energized with solar power, successfully rendezvoused last year with a comet 375 million miles from the sun. ESA at the start of this mission explained that it did not have the plutonium power systems that NASA had, so instead it developed high-efficiency solar photovoltaic panels for use in space. And they worked enabling Rosetta to meet up with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and send a lander to its surface. Rosetta continues flying alongside …read more

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