NASA has unveiled a mini nuclear power reactor that’s designed to power a long-term mission to Mars. The project is called Kilopower. This new power source has the potential to one day sustain a colony on the Red Planet, Reuters reports. One of the main hurdles blocking more missions to Mars is a lack of available power sources. Our sun is less powerful on Mars and the planet becomes very cold at night. Devising a power source compact enough to make it through space transit was another challenge.
But the new Kilopower reactor seems to tick all of those boxes based on initial tests by NASA. It’s small enough so that multiple units can be delivered on one lander, and it’s potent enough to generate tens of kilowatts of power. Lee Mason, principal technologist for power and energy storage at NASA told Reuters that a human mission to Mars will require 40 to 50 kilowatts of power.
According to Reuters, the prototype utilizes a uranium core reactor that’s about the size of a paper towel roll. But its size disguises its huge potential for helping to develop future colonies on Mars. These mini-nuclear reactors could one day enable equipment that can turn ice into oxygen or allow resources to be mined on the planet, Reuters notes. They could also provide energy for necessary life-support systems and habitats. They could even help to bolster current spacecraft technologies so that we can embark on more missions to outer planets.
NASA says that four Kilopower units would provide the power needed for an outpost. They plan to conduct a full power test on the system in late March which will last 28 hours.
@NASA's #Kilopower space nuclear reactor project, which could someday power a colony on Mars, reached an important milestone when the core was taken critical for the first time. Critical is the point at which the fission chain reaction in the reactor core is self-sustaining. pic.twitter.com/IBODOBlFYX
— Los Alamos Lab (@LosAlamosNatLab) November 22, 2017
Since it is nuclear power, one of the biggest concerns is safety. The device isn’t meant to be operated on Earth, so one of the safety measures they plan to implement is turning off the reactor until it reaches its destination, i.e. deep space or a new planet, Newsweek reports. The team behind its creation is also designing additional safety features.
The Kilopower project is one component of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Game Changing Development program, which is directed by NASA’s Langley Research Center.