Nuclear-based power hopes for Australian-made space infrastructure

By Melissa Coade

March 15, 2022

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ANSTO has teamed up with Ouranos Systems. (DM7/Adobe)

The development of satellites and space vehicles using solutions that rely on nuclear-based power will be explored in a new collaboration between the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and a space research startup.

ANSTO has teamed up with Ouranos Systems, a start-up based at the agency’s nandin Innovation Centre in southern Sydney, with a long-term goal of designing compact modular reactors for space applications. The agency is providing in-house infrastructure and expertise to support space research.

Ouranos Systems was formed by Dr Robert Mardus-Hall and Andrew Pastrello, who work with Future Now Scholarship recipients and other nuclear engineers. Members of the company were part of a team last year that received funding via the Australian Space Agency Moon to Mars Demonstrator Feasibility grant to design a radioisotope heater unit.

Maruds-Hall explained radioisotope heaters were needed for space exploration for extremely cold lunar nights. The small heater units weigh about 1.4 ounces and it is their size and longevity that make them good candidates for satellites and planetary exploration use.

“Heating is critical to maintaining operability in such a harsh environment, such as a lunar crater,” Mardus-Hall said.

“A large chunk of the work package that includes the selection of a radioisotope, radiation modelling, design of the pellet and shielding was the responsibility of Ouranos Systems. We had to select an appropriate radioisotope that would generate enough heat in a small enough package,” he said. 

When the radiation source for the unit is removed from a nuclear reactor, it needs to be encapsulated by a thermal shield. The company has now developed a workable design for the thermal shield and expect the project will be completed by June.

Mardus-Hall said if the thermal shield unit were to be made in Australia, the multipurpose reactor at ANSTO – OPAL – could be used to produce commercial quantities of the radioisotope.

“Our business partner is very pleased with the progress so far,” he said.

Ouranos Systems is also affiliated with reactor heat transfer specialist Dr Mark Ho. A team from the startup will be joingina NSW global export delegation for a major space symposium later this year. 


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