NASA and DOE test compact nuclear Mars power system for future missions

Mars fission power system concept in the Kilopower project is shown in this undated NASA handout

This pioneering space fission power system could provide up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power - enough to run two average households - continuously for at least 10 years, the U.S. space agency said in a statement on Friday.

When we imagine sending humans to live on Mars, the moon or other planetary bodies in the not-so-distant future, a primary question is: How will we power their colony?

But what kind of power source is small yet potent enough to reliably power an extraterrestrial habitat?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has conducted some initial test on a compact power system which will sustain a long in duration and will give full power run on a mission.

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. The current prototype features a uranium-25 reactor core; multiple units could provide "tens of kilowatts of power", according to Jurczyk.

"This reactor won't be turned on until it's deep into space", Said Patrick McClure, Kilopower project lead at Los Alamos.

But it may be some time before the nuclear reactor is blasted off to Mars, as Nasa is not planning to send a manned mission to the red planet until the 2030s at the earliest.

Janet Kavandi flew on three space shuttle missions and now serves as director of the Glenn Research Center. The nuclear-powered satellite was shut down after 43 days due to an electrical failure not related to its power source.

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NASA Glenn shipped the prototype power system from Cleveland to the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) in late September.

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 core itself is the size of a paper towel roll". "A space nuclear reactor could provide a high energy density power source with the ability to operate independent of solar energy or orientation, and the ability to operate in extremely harsh environments, such as the Martian surface", he said in a news release.

The basic, solid-state design makes the reactor relatively safe during both operation and deployment. "On launch, if we were to have something like an explosion, the risk to the public would be very minimal".

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.

Mason said the first flight test of a Kilopower reactor is still probably six to eight years away.

President Donald Trump in December signed a directive meant to pave the way for a return to the moon, with an eye toward an eventual Mars mission.

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