NASA Is Testing a Compact Nuclear Reactor to Power Astronauts on Mars
21 January, 2018, 01:23 | Author: Samuel Sharp
The reactor core was provided by the Y12 National Security Complex, with the power system around it designed and developed by NASA's Glenn Research Center in collaboration with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. 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.
NASA has been carrying out experiments on Kilopower - a small nuclear reactor that can generate a reliable power stream - to provide safe energy in abundance to carry out manned as well as unmanned missions.
Lee Mason, NASA's principal technologist for power and energy storage, told Reuters that a human mission would likely require 40 to 50 KW to power everything the astronauts needed. The system is small with a capacity to mingle easily with space-based applications. Combining these parts makes for a reliable, simple device for providing power for all kinds of space missions.
"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", NASA spokesman Steve Jurczyk said, as cited by Reuters.
"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". "This type of power system will be especially important as we travel deeper into our solar system and eventually to the surface of other worlds".
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. "They proved to be too expensive, with too much optimism for out-of-the-box systems".
There are a few significant reasons why a nuclear power system is being considered for future Mars missions. A crew on Mars might use four or five of the 10 kW reactors to power their habitat, charge their vehicles and keep them supplied with drinkable water and breathable air. Any future settlements on a world far, far away will need a bunch of it not just for their daily operations - lights, water, oxygen - but for the return trip as well.
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. Jurczyk said he has the confidence that the technology is viable.
"We want a power source that can handle extreme environments".
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