Published: Sun, January 21, 2018
Markets | By Noel Gibbs

Nuclear Reactor for Mars Missions

Nuclear Reactor for Mars Missions

There are a few significant reasons why a nuclear power system is being considered for future Mars missions. A prototype, which was created by NASA and the Department of Energy, has completed non-nuclear tests and is now running with a real reactor core at a facility in Nevada. The current tests will culminate with a test in March when the team plans a 28-hour run at full power with all components in place to make sure everything functions as expected.

The machines can generate up to 10 kilowatts nonstop for at least 10 years, so stringing together four could supply the roughly 40 kw NASA estimates a human settlement would need.

"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", NASA spokesman Steve Jurczyk said, as cited by Reuters. "We would need power on Mars for two primary reasons", said Patrick McClure, Project Lead for Reactor Development at Los Alamos, in the video above.

Janet Kavandi flew on three space shuttle missions and now serves as director of the Glenn Research Center.

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An efficient and dependable power system will be crucial for everyday requirements of the astronauts, like oxygen, water, electricity and other objectives of the mission such as carrying out experiments and even producing fuel for the long journey home. Reliable power can be power can be produced for years, perhaps decades. At NASA they're used to tens to hundreds of watts.

In the decades since, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on efforts to build safe, reliable reactors for space, but those projects were canceled before reaching the flight-test stage.

Power is one of the most crucial resources that astronauts would require if they go on a space mission to the Moon, Mars or beyond.

"We desired simplicity above all", McClure said. NASA Glenn shipped the prototype power system from Cleveland to the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) in late September. The reactor heat is transferred via passive sodium heat pipes, and the heat is converted to electricity by high-efficiency Stirling engines.

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"The core itself is the size of a paper towel roll".

"I believe we are not at a breakpoint in terms of having the capability to allow crews to survive and flourish on planetary surfaces", said Lee Mason, NASA's chief principal technologist for power and energy storage. Putting Kilopower reactors on the surface wouldn't happen until the later 2030s, he said.

Safety of the reactor is a priority, officials said. "On launch, if we were to have something like an explosion, the risk to the public would be very minimal".

Mason said there are a number of possible applications for the technology beyond a manned mission to Mars. It could also potentially augment electrically powered spacecraft propulsion systems on missions to the outer planets.

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