Published: Fri, January 19, 2018
Research | By Raquel Erickson

NASA Is Testing a Compact Nuclear Reactor to Power Astronauts on Mars

NASA Is Testing a Compact Nuclear Reactor to Power Astronauts on Mars

The Kilopower reactor runs on uranium and could produce 1-10 kilowatts of electrical power for ten years continuously.

According to a report by Business Standard, four Kilopower units can provide enough power to establish an extraterrestrial outpost.

According to U.S. officials, a full-power test will be performed in March under the NASA Kilopower project. Mason explained that the system houses all the flawless properties that make it a feasible option for a power source.

At this point, the project and related tests aims to determine whether fission power is even a viable option for this mission; if it's not, decision makers can direct focus elsewhere. A full-power test lasting about 28 hours would be completed by late March.

In 2012, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and NASA Glenn Research Center in OH demonstrated how a small fission reactor could provide electrical power, creating the basis for the $20 million Kilopower project, which launched in 2015.

'Mars is a very hard environment for power systems, with less sunlight than Earth or the moon, very cold nighttime temperatures, very interesting dust storms that can last weeks and months that engulf the entire planet, ' said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate.

"Being able to "live off the land" reduces the amount of supplies we have to send along to Mars", said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. When astronauts someday venture to the Moon, Mars and other destinations, one of the first and most important resources they will need is power. The idea has been around since the 1950's, with several attempts to develop a power system.


"The core itself is the size of a paper towel roll".

The idea of using nuclear reactors for space flight is nothing new.

The brilliance of Kilopoweris its simplicity: With few moving parts, it uses heat-pipe technology, invented at Los Alamos way back in 1963, to power a Stirling engine. The cohort of researchers at the NNSS started conducting tests on the reactor core.

"I believe we are not at a breakpoint in terms of having the capability to allow crews to survive and flourish on planetary surfaces", said Lee Mason, NASA's chief principal technologist for power and energy storage.

Safety of the reactor is a priority, officials said. The system is being tested in the Nevada desert, where initial tests have proven successful.

Whatever system is ultimately chosen for future long-term space missions must be light and compact enough to transport to Mars, but also powerful enough to meet and sustain any particular mission's energy needs.

If the technology proves safe and effective, he said, it should be ready in time to power mankind's return to the moon in the mid 2020s and a possible mission to Mars in the early 2030s.

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