NASA is set to begin testing a radical ‘nuclear engine’ that could provide power for astronauts on the Martian surface.
Dubbed the ‘Kilopower’ it would use a uranium rector the size of a toilet roll to create heat.
A high efficiency Stirling engine would then convert this to electricity, in a system that works in a similar way to a car engine.
NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) has provided multi-year funding to the Kilopower project.
The technology could produce from one to 10 kilowatts of electrical power, continuously for 10 years or more.
The average U.S. household runs on about five kilowatts of power.
Testing is due to start in November and go through early next year, with NASA partnering with the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Nevada National Security Site to appraise fission power technologies.
‘The Kilopower test program will give us confidence that this technology is ready for space flight development.
‘We’ll be checking analytical models along the way for verification of how well the hardware is working,’ said Lee Mason, STMD’s principal technologist for Power and Energy Storage at NASA Headquarters.
The Y12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee is providing the reactor core for the tests of the system.
Having a space-rated fission power unit for Mars explorers would be a game changer, Mason claims.
It would kill off worries about meeting power demands during the night or long, sunlight-reducing dust storms.
‘It solves those issues and provides a constant supply of power regardless of where you are located on Mars.
‘Fission power could expand the possible landing sites on Mars to include the high northern latitudes, where ice may be present,’ he said.
‘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,’ said Patrick McClure, project lead on the Kilopower work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
‘The reactor technology we are testing could be applicable to multiple NASA missions, and we ultimately hope that this is the first step for fission reactors to create a new paradigm of truly ambitious and inspiring space exploration,’ said David Poston, Los Alamos’ chief reactor designer.
‘Simplicity is essential to any first-of-a-kind engineering project – not necessarily the simplest design, but finding the simplest path through design, development, fabrication, safety and testing.’
‘What we are striving to do is give space missions an option beyond RTGs, which generally provide a couple hundred watts or so,’ Mason says.
‘The big difference between all the great things we’ve done on Mars, and what we would need to do for a human mission to that planet, is power.
‘This new technology could provide kilowatts and can eventually be evolved to provide hundreds of kilowatts, or even megawatts of power. We call it the Kilopower project because it gives us a near-term option to provide kilowatts for missions that previously were constrained to use less.’
Small enough in size, multiple units could be delivered on a single Mars lander and operated independently for human surface missions.