Enabling Challenging Space Exploration: exploring 244Cm-based radioisotope power systems

   Department of Physics and Astronomy

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  Dr Emily Jane Watkinson  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

·       Radioisotope power systems (RPS) are key for allowing us to explore some of the most challenging locations of our solar system that are not possible or are very challenging using solar array based electrical power supplies. Spacecraft need electrical power and onboard heating to operate. RPS generate heat via radioactive decay that can be used directly, or that can be converted into electrical power e.g. via thermoelectric generators. Some examples of missions enabled using RPS include various Apollo missions to the Moon, Mars 2020’s Perseverance rover, Cassini-Huygens spacecraft and probe to Saturn/Titan and New Horizons mission to Pluto. U.S. RPS utilise 238Pu as the radioisotope fuel.

·       You will be supervised by experts who are actively developing 241Am RPSs for European Space Agency in the School of Physics and Astronomy based at Space Park Leicester.

·       This PhD will explore and propose new 244Cm based radioisotope “fuels”, which could open up new space science exploration mission opportunities. 244Cm has a shorter half-life than traditional radioisotopes at 18.1 years. You will assess the feasibility of the  244Cm based fuels.

·       Your research will also contribute to knowledge relevant to nuclear power on Earth.

·       You will:

o  make non-radioactive simulants of proposed 244Cm based fuel options, chemically.

o  develop laboratory analytical research skills to analyse the materials e.g., in scanning electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction.

o  develop the capability to consolidate the simulant “fuel” into a sintered pellet.

o  propose the clad/primary containment system for the fuel. 

o  consider space science opportunities for using 244Cm based RPS e.g., operations and processes that require power in dark/distant locations and those that require higher power than what traditional radioisotope power systems offer.

·       Beneficial skills: problem solving, interest and/or experience in experimental research, willingness to learn new experimental skills.

·       Exploring dark and/or distant locations in our solar system is becoming ever timelier- the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG)’s “Space nuclear power & propulsion: a technology gap assessment” has highlighted the importance of radioisotope power systems to enabling robotic exploration of the Moon, Mars and the outer solar system. 

Enquiries to project supervisor [Email Address Removed] or [Email Address Removed]


Refer to our website: https://le.ac.uk/study/research-degrees/funded-opportunities/stfc

Physics (29)

Funding Notes

The projects listed are in competition for STFC funding. Usually the project which receives the best applicant will be awarded the funding.
The STFC studentship provides:
A full UK fee waiver for 3.5 years*
An annual tax free stipend (currently £18,622 for 2023/4) for 3.5 years
Research Training Support Grant (RTSG)
Conference Fees and UK Fieldwork fund
*Up to 2 international studentships are available and include a 3.5 year full overseas fee waiver and stipend as above.


• An insight into the School of Physics and Astronomy’s Space Nuclear Power teams research into radioisotope power systems can be found here: https://www.era.ac.uk/projects/energy-for-space-exploration/
• Insight into past simulant fuels research and other research conducted by Watkinson et al. as part of the development of 241Am radioisotope power systems can be found in the following paper:
R. M. Ambrosi, H. R. Williams, E. J. Watkinson, et al. European Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) and Radioisotope Heater Units (RHUs) for Space Science and Exploration. Space Sci Rev 215, 55 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11214-019-0623-9
• The ISECG’s “Space nuclear power & propulsion: a technology gap assessment” can be found here: https://www.globalspaceexploration.org/. Last accessed 1st October 2023.
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