NASA Tests A Mini Nuclear Reactor Designed For Mars Colonies
Keeping the lights on will be even trickier on Mars than it is on Earth, which is why NASA has been working on developing new nuclear power sources for space. That initiative is called Kilopower. A way to create fuel on the go is a must and researchers at NASA, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Department of Energy announced today that they’ve conducted successful tests of a system that can do just that.
“It would have a tremendous impact enabling missions that otherwise aren’t attainable,” Lee Mason, a NASA energy specialist, said during a press conference. “It would enable us to mine the resources on Mars.” In addition to powering activities on the surface of the moon and Mars, the agency also hopes Kilopower systems could power robots as they explore the outer planets and their moons, or even take a probe beyond the boundaries of our solar system.
The planet’s distance from the sun means that it gets less natural light than the Earth does, and as such, solar power will be a lot less reliable – which also won’t be helped by the enormous dust clouds that the planet generates, which also make wind energy impractical. Astronauts won’t even be able to burn fossil fuels because, whatever certain conspiracy theorists might claim, there aren’t any known fossils on Mars.
Nuclear power is the logical choice for powering a Martian colony, but this also comes with an inherent challenge. Current energy reactors are big, bulky, and very heavy. For a solid fuel source for space travel, we need an energy system that is lightweight enough to be able to escape Earth’s gravity without too much effort.
“So Kilopower’s compact size and robustness allow us to deliver multiple units on a single lander to the surface that provides tens of kilowatts of power,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.
NASA’s prototype power system uses a uranium-235 reactor core roughly the size of a paper towel roll. President Donald Trump in December signed a directive intended to pave the way for a return to the moon, with an eye toward an eventual Mars mission.
Lee Mason, NASA’s principal technologist for power and energy storage, said Mars has been the project’s main focus, noting that a human mission likely would require 40 to 50 kilowatts of power.
The prototype power system was designed and developed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center in collaboration with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Kilopower, a project budgeted at about $15 million, is NASA’s first foray into nuclear fission power in space since the 1960s.