The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), and the Department of Energy are testing a small 10kWe nuclear reactor for use on Mars.
The compact and durable Kilopower reactor is expected to generate reliable power supply for a long-term habitation on the planet. The reactor uses a uranium-235 reactor core described as roughly the size of a paper towel roll. Multiple high-power versions of the reactor could be used to power an extensive habitat.
The Kilopower reactor has been tested at various power levels, and researchers plan to conduct a full-power test soon. Four reactors would provide enough power to establish an outpost. “We want a power source that can handle extreme environments. Kilopower opens up the full surface of Mars, including the northern latitudes where water may reside,” said Lee Mason, NASA’s Principal Technologist for power and energy storage. Kilopower could also be deployed on the moon to help search for resources in permanently shadowed craters, he added.
"Mars is a very difficult environment for power systems, with less sunlight than Earth or the moon, very cold night-time 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 allow us to deliver multiple units on a single lander to the surface that provides tens of kilowatts of power," he added.
The prototype reactor, designed and developed by NASA’s Glenn Research Centre in collaboration with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre and LANL, was shipped from Cleveland to the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) in late September, where tests began in November. Tests on the reactor core are now underway at NNSS. Kilopower lead engineer Marc Gibson said the team will now connect the power system to the core and begin end-to-end checks. The experiments are expected to conclude with a full-power test lasting approximately 28 hours in late March, NASA said.
Dave Poston, LANL chief reactor designer, said testing completed on components of the system has been "greatly successful”. He added that “the models have predicted very well what has happened, and operations have gone smoothly".
Photo: Kilopower reactor (Credit: NASA)