DOE, NASA testing fission reactor for spaceflight

(Credit: Screenshot by Tim Hornyak/CNET)

Why don’t we have warp drive yet? Well, because, according to “Star Trek” lore, inventor Zefram Cochrane hasn’t been born yet.

Baby Zefram is due in about 20 years, but in the meantime NASA and the Department of Energy are working on something somewhat tantalizing if you’re planning a deep-space probe.

Researchers including engineers from Los Alamos National Laboratory have demonstrated a nuclear reactor that could power spaceflight. It’s nowhere near as powerful as NASA’s conceptual antimatter engine–the Demonstration Using Flattop Fissions (DUFF) experiment produces just 24 watts of electricity.

The researchers used a heat pipe to cool a small nuclear reactor and power a Stirling engine, according to the lab, yielding “a simple, reliable space power system.” It was the first space nuclear reactor experiment in the U.S. since 1965.

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