US tests NASA’s small nuclear reactor Kilopower to sustain astronauts, human missions on Mars


Some initial tests on a compact power system which was designed to sustain a long-duration National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) human mission on Mars have been successful.The tests were conducted in the US state of Nevada and a full-power run is scheduled for March according to the officials.

Sizeable details of the development of the nuclear fission system under NASA’s Kilopower project were shared by NASA and the US Department of Energy official at a LAS Vegas news conference.

POWERING UP NASA’S HUMAN REACH FOR THE RED PLANET

NASA is pushing forward on testing a key energy source that could literally “empower” human crews on the inhospitable surface of Mars.

The energy source can energise habitats and running on-the-spot processing equipment to transform Red Planet resources into oxygen, water and fuel.

Months-long testing began in the month of November last year at the energy department’s Nevada National Security Site. The testing began with the intent to provide energy for future astronaut and robotic missions in space and on the surface of Mars, the moon or other solar system destinations, according to a Reuters report.

NASA partnered with the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Nevada National Security Site to appraise fission power technologies and NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) has provided multi-year funding to the Kilopower project, according to a NASA report.

KILOPOWER: A GATEWAY TO ABUNDANT POWER FOR EXPLORATION

What comes as a key hurdle for any long-term colony on the surface of a planet or moon, as opposed to NASA’s six short lunar surface visits from 1969 to 1972, is possessing a power source strong enough to sustain a base but small and light enough to allow for transport through space.

“Mars is a very difficult 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,” Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate said.

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,.

– Steve Jurczyk

Testing on components of the system, dubbed KRUSTY, has been “greatly successful — the models have predicted very well what has happened, and operations have gone smoothly,” Dave Poston, chief reactor designer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory said.

What comes as a confidence builder is what Lee Mason, STMD’s principal technologist for Power and Energy Storage at NASA Headquarters explained, “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.”

The pioneering Kilopower reactor represents a small and simple approach for long-duration, sun-independent electric power for space or extraterrestrial surfaces.

The Kilopower reactor offers prolonged life and reliability, such technology could produce from one to 10 kilowatts of electrical power, continuously for 10 years or more, Mason points out. To put it into perspective and understand it better, the average US household runs on about five kilowatts of power.

Having a space-rated fission power unit for Mars explorers would be a game changer, Mason adds. No 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.

– Lee Mason

KRUSTY, FULL-POWER TEST AND TRUMP

Testing on components of the system, dubbed KRUSTY, has been “greatly successful — the models have predicted very well what has happened, and operations have gone smoothly,” Dave Poston, chief reactor designer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory said.

Officials said a full-power test will be conducted near the middle or end of March, a bit later than originally planned.

NASA’s prototype power system uses a uranium-235 reactor core roughly which is the size of a paper towel roll.

In December last year, US President Donald Trump 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 technology could power habitats and life-support systems, enable astronauts to mine resources, recharge rovers and run processing equipment to transform resources such as ice on the planet into oxygen, water and fuel.

It could also potentially augment electrically powered spacecraft propulsion systems on missions to the outer planets.

India Today