NASA Is Developing a Compact Nuclear Reactor for Future Mars Habitats


Initial tests in Nevada on a compact nuclear power system created to sustain a long-duration Nasa human mission on the inhospitable surface of Mars have been successful and a full-power run is scheduled for March, officials said on Thursday. The Kilopower uses the latest technology along with the uranium-235 based reactor core with a height of 5 to 6 feet. "Here's how it works: The sealed tube in the heat pipe circulates a fluid around the reactor, picking up the heat and carrying it to the Stirling engine". The engines use heat to create pressure forces that move a piston, which is coupled to an alternator to produce electricity, similar to how a vehicle engine works. It's all a huge drag and if there's one thing that's indispensable in keeping us alive, that's power. Combining these parts makes for a reliable, simple device for providing power for all kinds of space missions.

If the technology proves safe and effective, he said, it should be ready in time to power mankind's return to the moon in the mid 2020s and a possible mission to Mars in the early 2030s.

"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", said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of Nasa's Space Technology Mission Directorate.

"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". 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. It could also potentially augment electrically powered spacecraft propulsion systems on missions to the outer planets. But none have proved to be successful enough to seriously consider for human space missions.

Researchers from NASA, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Department of Energy are testing a small nuclear reactor for use on Mars. It took less than 6 months to develop the system and it cost less than $1 million.

Mark Martinez, president of Mission Support and Test Services, speaks during a panel discussion on a future mission to Mars, at the National Atomic Testing Museum, in Las Vegas, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. Four of them could run the kind of crewed Mars outpost NASA wants to one day establish.

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

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