NASA is testing tiny nuclear reactors that can sustain life on Mars

Gladys Abbott
January 21, 2018

Gibson says the experiments should conclude with a full-power test lasting approximately 28 hours in late March. It uses now available technology, with a uranium-235 reactor core that is about the width of a paper towel roll and about 5-6 feet tall.

The small reactor, created to have as few moving parts as possible, uses heat-pipe technology developed by Los Alamos in 1963.

NASA's new energy product, under development with several partners, will form a new way for the agency to provide astronauts with power during planetary missions. Combining these parts makes for a reliable, simple device for providing power for all kinds of space missions.

NASA is now testing a compact nuclear fission reactor capable of providing future Mars missions with enough energy.

The nuclear option makes sense on Mars, Jurczyk said, because solar power could prove unreliable on a planet that gets very cold, receives less sunlight than Earth and is prone to dust storms that can envelop the globe and last for weeks.

"So Kilopower's compact size and robustness allows us to deliver multiple units on a single lander to the surface that provides tens of kilowatts of power", Jurczyk added.

According to experts, just one of these reactors is enough to power an unmanned spacecraft during a deep space mission.

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As anyone would be with any nuclear power system, NASA is anxious about safety. But none have proved to be successful enough to seriously consider for human space missions.

NASA's Glenn Research Centre collaborated with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre and the Los Alamos National Laboratory to design and developed prototype power system. "In the end they were invariably canceled". It took less than 6 months to develop the system and it cost less than $1 million.

"Located in a remote, high-security area of Southern Nevada, we're ideally suited to conduct unique experiments in our indoor, outdoor and underground national facilities", said Mark Martinez, president of Mission Support and Test Services, the managing and operating contractor for the test site. NASA states that to run a habitat on Mars and create fuel, about 40 kW would be needed.

Scientists on Mars would use carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere or water on the Moon to produce oxygen and rocket fuel, for example.

Asked if this system could be ramped up and used as a power source for a propulsion system such as electric propulsion, Mason said that would need 100s of kilowatts of power, which is well beyond the range of the Kilopower project. The functioning of this Kilopower project is similar to that of a auto engine.

"We look forward to bringing this technology to fruition to give future explorers the power they need to succeed", he said.

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