ESA Innovation Exchange: Radioisotope

Space explorers seek alliances with power companies to accomplish new missions

The European Space Agency (ESA) in partnership with the World Nuclear Association, the European Nuclear Society, European industry and the University of Leicester gathered experts, researchers and business people from around the world to discuss steps forward to advance space exploration.

The international space community is targeting a new wave of space missions destined for cold, dark and distant environments in the solar system while promoting a greater involvement of human operators in deep space and on long duration journeys. Under these operational scenarios, a robust, efficient and diversified supply of electricity and heat is required. Sole reliance on power from photovoltaic cells would prevent many of these exploration ambitions from being realised.

Technologies using radioisotopes have been identified as one important component required to achieve a diversified supply of power in space. Radioisotope systems can provide a baseline continuous supply of electricity and heat; operational safety, by assuring long-term continuity and autonomy; competitive mass to power ratios and increased science return by increasing access to the remote regions of the solar system.

The ESA Innovation Exchange – Radioisotopes for Science, Exploration and Applications on 27-28 June 2018 at ESTEC in Noordwijk – offered the European space community and potential international partners the opportunity to discuss the role, implications and impacts of European space nuclear power systems utilising americium-241 in exploration efforts as well as the diverse non-space uses of americium-241 as a product in its own right, or as a component of energy systems.

The two-day event focused on:

  • Sharing the state-of-the-art of the 241 Americium for space and non-space purposes,
  • Radioisotope applications in electrical and thermal power generation,
  • Building a comprehensive and innovative business case assuring sustainability and satisfaction of the overall needs,
  • Understanding and responding to the potential needs of different stakeholders, and
  • Building international partnerships

This Innovation Exchange was open to participants from the space and non-space sectors. Broad participation from industry, academia, the public sector and research entities was encouraged to maximise the benefits and outcomes of the event.

The event programme was shaped according to the “4 I’s” of engagement – Information, Inspiration, Interaction, Innovation – of the ESA Space 4.0 Strategy. There were informative sessions about the needs and the uses of space nuclear power technologies; the uses of americium-241; inspirational presentations describing the European space nuclear power programme and the societal benefits of investing in enabling technologies for space exploration; interactive sessions on the European approach and business model to deliver sustainable capability in this domain; and, lastly, the exchange of innovative ideas for making space exploration advancements possible.

Programme Committee.

The committee is chaired by ESA with input from diverse affiliations such as University of Leicester, Observatoire de Paris, European JRC-Karlsruhe, UK National Nuclear Laboratory, UK Space Agency, French Space Agency – Centre national d’études spatiales CNES and the World Nuclear Association.