The term "suitcase nuke" hasn't enjoyed a particularly popular connotation in recent years, but researchers convening at the 242nd National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society this week think such a concept is the future of interplanetary space travel. Scientists supporting a joint NASA/US Department Of Energy project to develop future power plants for space colonists envision the first such power supplies being suitcase-sized fission reactors that future space explorers could deploy quickly and reliably in the harsh environs of another planet like Mars.
These mini-reactors would have no cooling towers or billowing steam clouds emanating from them. Rather, they would stand about two feet tall and maybe a foot wide, with a compact uranium fission chamber and power plant tucked inside. Unlike the solar panel systems often deployed aboard interplanetary missions--like the Spirit and Opportunity rovers currently on Mars--a small fission system could supply the kind of constant, steady power necessary for human survival on another planet.
That will be key for establishing a beachhead on another planet, as everything from life support systems (oxygen supplies and carbon dioxide scrubbing, for instance) to water treatment to keeping the lights and heat/cooling on will rely on around-the-clock energy. Any lapse in power, and the humans relying on those systems would quickly find themselves in a bad way.
Plus, such suitcase nukes would fit neatly in any future space vehicle's overhead bins, defraying the cost of checking. The joint NASA/DOE initiative hopes to produce a working demo unit next year.