Nasa has successfully tested a nuclear reactor the agency will use to power human colonies on Mars and the moon.
The agency plans to use the mini fission reactor to provide electricity to off-Earth outposts and turn space resources into the breathable air, water and rocket fuel.
Nasa has now set its sights on flight tests to see how the ‘Kilopower’ system would perform in space, a senior official told reporters at a press conference.
‘When we go to the moon, and eventually on to Mars, we are likely going to need large power sources and not rely on the sun,’ Jim Reuter, Nasa’s acting associate administrator for space technology, explained Wednesday during a news briefing at Glenn Research Centre in Cleveland, Ohio.
‘Safe, efficient and plentiful energy will be the key to future robotic and human exploration.
‘I expect the Kilopower project to be an essential part of lunar and Mars power architectures as they evolve.’
On long missions to the moon and beyond, astronauts would struggle to provide energy for their operations using traditional fuels.
Liquid or gas-based fuels are flammable and heavy, making them dangerous and expensive to carry long distances.
A nuclear reactor could generate huge amounts of energy while taking up very little space, and without the need to refuel.
It will be able to do so safely because the fuel contained within it is only mildly reactive until the system is switched on.
This means it can be transported over long distances without the inherent risks of carrying flammable or explosive fuels.
‘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,’ Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of Nasa’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said after a successful test in January.
‘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,’ Jurczyk added.
Before it fires Kilpower into space, Nasa is conducting safety and feasibility experiments with the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
The recent test of the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) system, was carried out at a site in Nevada from November 2017 through March.
Trials of the system seemed to suggest that the space-bound nuclear reactor was even more powerful than Nasa had thought.
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