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Autonomous Control of Space Nuclear Reactors

Autonomous operation and safety are addressed simultaneously.

Nuclear reactors to support future robotic and manned missions impose new and innovative technological requirements for their control and protection instrumentation. Long-duration surface missions necessitate reliable autonomous operation, and manned missions impose added requirements for failsafe reactor protection. There is a need for an advanced instrumentation and control system for spacenuclear reactors that addresses both aspects of autonomous operation and safety.

The Reactor Instrumentation and Control System (RICS) consists of two functionally independent systems: the Reactor Protection System (RPS) and the Supervision and Control System (SCS). Through these two systems, the RICS both supervises and controls a nuclear reactor during normal operational states, as well as monitors the operation of the reactor and, upon sensing a system anomaly, automatically takes the appropriate actions to prevent an unsafe or potentially unsafe condition from occurring. The RPS encompasses all electrical and mechanical devices and circuitry, from sensors to actuation device output terminals.

The SCS contains a comprehensive data acquisition system to measure continuously different groups of variables consisting of primary measurement elements, transmitters, or conditioning modules. These reactor control variables can be categorized into two groups: those directly related to the behavior of the core (known as nuclear variables) and those related to secondary systems (known as process variables). Reliable closed-loop reactor control is achieved by processing the acquired variables and actuating the appropriate device drivers to maintain the reactor in a safe operating state. The SCS must prevent a deviation from the reactor nominal conditions by managing limitation functions in order to avoid RPS actions.

The RICS has four identical redundancies that comply with physical separation, electrical isolation, and functional independence. This architecture complies with the safety requirements of a nuclear reactor and provides high availability to the host system. The RICS is intended to interface with a host computer (the computer of the spacecraft where the reactor is mounted). The RICS leverages the safety features inherent in Earth-based reactors and also integrates the wide range neutron detector (WRND). A neutron detector provides the input that allows the RICS to do its job. The RICS is based on proven technology currently in use at a nuclear research facility. In its most basic form, the RICS is a ruggedized, compact data-acquisition and control system that could be adapted to support a wide variety of harsh environments. As such, the RICS could be a useful instrument outside the scope of a nuclear reactor, including military applications where fail-safe data acquisition and control is required with stringent size, weight, and power constraints.

This work was done by John Merk of Aurora Flight Sciences for Glenn Re search Center. For more information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Inquiries concerning rights for the commercial use of this invention should be addressed to NASA Glenn Research Center, Innovative Partnerships Office, Attn: Steven Fedor, Mail Stop 4–8, 21000 Brookpark Road, Cleveland, Ohio 44135. LEW-19014-1