National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Glenn Research Center

Omar Mireles

Space Nuclear PropulsionOmar Mireles speaks to the Academyites about nuclear space propulsion.

Tuesday, June 30th, StudioPlus –  North Olmsted, OH

When Omar Mireles showed up in the Academy’s Lounge at their hotel, he dove right into the discussion of Fundamentals of Space Nuclear Power & Propulsion. After first outlining the space environment, Omar presented the current hurdles for space propulsion in power, fuel and other consumables, and effects to human crew. Nuclear power seems to be the only logical choice that gives a sufficient output for a long duration of time. Solar power has a certain range it must operate in, and standard burning fuels take a considerable weight run out much quicker.

But with such a good power source that NASA has used for many, many space exploration missions, like Voyager, Cassini, and Galileo, why is power systems even a question? Radioisotopes for these past missions were used, seeing as the 1977 Voyager mission that has moved out of our solar system is still transmitting. However, due to the political nature of nuclear energy (justified or not), enrichment is not an issue but nuclear systems have had limited usage. . Still, NASA is using radioisotope power for the most recent Mars Rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, so the resource is still being utilized, just not to its full potential yet.

Moving on to the topic of nuclear fission power systems, Omar gave the lowdown on how they operate and then showed potential applications for long-term space missions, including those to the moon. With a life of 5-10 years, fission proves to be quite effective for the lunar surface in that it does not have to be constantly renewed like other fuels. Also, fission could be used to propel space exploration missions throughout the solar system in the form of ion thrusters, hall thrusters, VASMIR, and thermal propulsion.

Yet, once again the political climate comes into play, with the current regulations in place against nuclear weapons, it will be incredibly difficult to get high-enrichment fission devices into space. In the research world, many proposed designs are very advanced and very theoretical, a major problem in the space propulsion field in that designs often lack experimental testing. Omar made sure to stress the importance of effective experimental demonstration of these systems instead of just leaving them as ideas on paper.

After the talk, the discussion moved towards the subject of school since many of us are on the cusp of graduate work. Omar pressed the Academy on the fact that if they were to attend graduate school, that they should go the extra mile to do their own research instead of just taking what advisors will undoubtedly offer them.

In shopping around for a graduate school, instead of talking directly with professors, he suggested talking with the students and getting a good feel of the type of research (physical or theoretical) to see if it’s the right fit for what you want to do. He also is a living example of someone not afraid to take chances, move around, and test the waters early in one’s career. After changing his focus to Nuclear energy after many years in college, Omar has already bounced between several NASA centers and stressed that the Academy students shouldn’t feel limited in what they want to do, so long as they have a will to keep learning.

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