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Ohio’s Only Research Reactor Part of Space Exploration

As NASA scientists consider the possibility of more advanced spacecraft or even entire space settlements, The Ohio State University Nuclear Reactor Laboratory (NRL) has become a resource where researchers can simulate the radioactivity that materials will be exposed to in space.

“NASA is strategically important to us,” says Director of Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, Dr. Raymond Cao, Professor in Nuclear Engineering program, “being the only research reactor in the state of Ohio and two hours driving from NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, we could further provide support to NASA missions.”

NASA’s Kilopower project is developing an affordable fission nuclear power system to enable long-duration stays on planetary surfaces. After successful completion of the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) experiment in March 2018, the Kilopower project team is developing mission concepts and performing additional risk reduction activities to prepare for a possible future flight demonstration. But, first, the electronic components used in the flight demonstration need to be tested.

Ohio State alumnus Max Chaiken MS NE ’18, BS ECE ’14 is part of the team in the formulation phase between the ground prototype testing NASA did in 2018 and the planned lunar surface demonstration mission starting development in 2020. His work has brought him back to his alma mater where the team is focused on qualifying electronics for the lunar surface demonstration. The radiation hardness testing of electronic components will help determine which components will succeed in space.

“Using the Ohio State University Research Reactor to test components for use supporting space reactors such as the Kilopower reactor will help ensure that the components will reliably serve their needed function and contribute to successful missions,” says Nuclear Reactor Laboratory Sr. Associate Director Andrew Kauffman. “The need for sustainable power has brought many experiments to NRL that are focused on the study of sensors and sensor materials, which support the development of future reactor designs – including reactors in space.”

A successful Kilopower demonstration in space could pave the way for future Kilopower systems that power human outposts on the Moon and Mars, enabling mission operations in harsh environments and missions that rely on In-situ Resource Utilization to produce local propellants and other materials. Kilopower will be able to achieve kilowatts of power — that’s enough to run more advanced spacecraft or entire space settlements. And beyond simply bigger space missions, the technology could also enable spacecraft with longer lifespans and a greater array of instruments.

OSU and NASA researchersAndrew Kauffman, Max Chaiken, Hak Kim

As NASA and others continue to explore new space technologies, researchers at Ohio State continue to contribute to the conversation and evolving science. Recent remarkable OSU / NASA announcements include:

New NASA mission could find more than 1,000 planets

Faculty member lands funding from NASA to investigate Martian mission descent

Ohio State’s first satellite prepares for launch

NASA chooses Ohio State to lead electric aircraft engine R&D

As the only operating research reactor currently in the State of Ohio, the NRL is a unique teaching and research laboratory that delivers high quality service to its customers and excellent instruction and research opportunities to nuclear engineering students.