At a Las Vegas news conference Thursday, officials from NASA and the US Department of Energy announced success with a project to create a compact nuclear power generator for a long-term human mission on Mars. As part of NASA’s Kilopower project, scientists began testing last November, at the Department of Energy’s Nevada National Security Test Site, according to Reuters.
The researchers have been working to provide sufficient power for future missions into space and to the surface of Mars or other destinations in our system, involving both humans and robots. The primary challenge has been to develop a power source that provides enough energy for a long-term base, but that is sufficiently light and compact for space travel.
According to Steve Jurcyzyk, associate administrator of NASA‘s Space Technology Mission Directorate:
“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. 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.”
NASA technologist for power and energy storage Lee Mason said that a Mars mission was the main goal in mind for the project, noting that a human mission would probably require 40 to 50 kilowatts.
Testing on the project, which NASA has called KRUSTY, has proven successful so far. According to Dave Poston, Los Alamos National Laboratory chief reactor designer, “The models have predicted very well what has happened, and operations have gone smoothly.”
The project will face a full power test later than originally planned, in March, according to NASA. Testing began with only the core, with the rest of the system built out from there. The final test in March will involve a 28-hour run on full power with all elements in place.
The prototype employs a uranium-235 reactor core, which is about the size of a loaf of bread. To address the safety concerns that come with moving a nuclear reactor via space travel, NASA says the system will not begin operating until it reaches either deep space or its planetary destination. It will also include a series of safety and redundancy features.