Mini nuclear reactor to fuel the possibility of Mars based colonies

Pablo Tucker
January 19, 2018

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

A full power test of Kilopower, which uses a uranium reactor not much bigger than a paper towel roll, is scheduled for the end of March, before it is ready to venture out into the stars.

Reactor heat is transferred via passive sodium heat pipes, with that heat then converted to electricity by high-efficiency Stirling engines.

According to a report by Business Standard, four Kilopower units can provide enough power to establish an extraterrestrial outpost. Such reactors could be used to power orbiting space stations, asteroid mining operations or the engines and scientific equipment on unmanned missions to the outer planets and beyond. "The overall system is about the height of a man or a woman", said Lee Mason, NASA's principal technologist for power and energy storage.

The system employs a small compact-sized Uranium reactor created to power life support systems, habitats, substance conversion equipment and other critical mission resources used by astronauts. The engines present in the Kilopower use heat in order to create pressure to move a particular piston that is paired with an alternator which ultimately results in the production of electricity.

"This system has all the right properties to make this a great reactor", Mason said. But none have proved to be successful enough to seriously consider for human space missions. The temperature at night here is very cold with dust storms that are known to last several weeks while taking over the entire planet. It took less than 6 months to develop the system and it cost less than $1 million.

Jurczyk noted that the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission includes a small experiment called Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE) that will extract carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere to create water.

President Donald Trump in December signed a directive meant to pave the way for a return to the moon, with an eye towards an eventual Mars mission. It provides 40 to 50 kW of power. Also, the number of solar panels and batteries required would once again make the rocket to Mars extremely heavy - requiring more fuel. The functioning of this Kilopower project is similar to that of a auto engine.

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 United States space agency said in a statement on Friday.

The reactor is also known as KRUSTY which is short for Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling TechnologY.

"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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