While nuclear power stations across the United States are shutting down, NASA and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) are working on a secret nuclear reactor to power deep-space exploration, such as human missions to Mars in the next decade and beyond.
Kilopower, NASA’s Portable Nuclear Fission Reactor, Will Help Humans Power Future Base On Mars (Source: NASA)
NASA announced the results of a new nuclear reactor power system, called the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY), during a press conference Wednesday at its Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Experimental trials of the Kilopower system were conducted at NNSA’s Nevada National Security Site from November 2017 through the end of 1Q2018.
“Safe, efficient and plentiful energy will be the key to future robotic and human exploration,” said Jim Reuter, NASA’s acting associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) in Washington. “I expect the Kilopower project to be an essential part of lunar and Mars power architectures as they evolve.”
The Kilopower system can generate 1 to 10 kilowatts of electrical power — enough power to run several American homes – continuously for more than 10-years. NASA indicates that four Kilopower units would provide enough “power to establish an outpost” on Mars or the Moon.
Artist’s conception of the Kilopower reactor on Mars. (Source: NASA)
According to Marc Gibson, lead Kilopower engineer at Glenn Research, “the pioneering power system is ideal for the Moon, where power generation from sunlight is difficult because lunar nights are equivalent to 14 days on Earth.”
“Kilopower gives us the ability to do much higher power missions, and to explore the shadowed craters of the Moon,” said Gibson.
“When we start sending astronauts for long stays on the Moon and to other planets, that’s going to require a new class of power that we’ve never needed before,” he added.
The Kilopower reactor utilizes a solid, cast uranium-235 reactor core, about the size of a “paper towel roll,” said NASA. Reactor heat is transferred through passive sodium heat pipes, then converted to energy by high-efficiency Stirling engines. In other words, NASA has successfully built a thermoelectric generator that can power its space camps hundreds of thousands, if not millions of miles away from planet earth.
Kilopower lead engineer Marc Gibson and Vantage Partner’s Jim Sanzi install hardware on the Kilopower assembly at the Nevada National Security Site during testing in March. (Source: NASA)
According to David Poston, the chief reactor designer at NNSA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, “the purpose of the recent experiment in Nevada was two-fold: to demonstrate that the system can create electricity with fission power, and to show the system is stable and safe no matter what environment it encounters.”
“We threw everything we could at this reactor, in terms of nominal and off-normal operating scenarios and KRUSTY passed with flying colors,” said Poston.
A recent test of the Kilopower technology was conducted in four phases. The first two – conducted without power – to make sure all components of the system “behaved as expected,” said NASA. During the third phase, the power to heat the core was incrementally increased before moving to the last and final phase. For 28-hours, the Kilopower unit experienced a full-power blast that simulated a mission, including “reactor startup, ramp to full power, steady operation and shutdown,” said NASA.
Kilopower nuclear fission reactor KRUSTY vacuum test. (Source: NASA)
During the demonstration, the Kilopower unit ran through “simulated power reduction, failed engines and failed heat pipes,” said NASA, showing that the power unit was more than capable of operating under extreme stress.
“We put the system through its paces,” said Gibson. “We understand the reactor very well, and this test proved that the system works the way we designed it to work. No matter what environment we expose it to, the reactor performs very well.”
NASA and NNSA developed the Kilopower technology project for a little less than $20 million; however, officials said it was too premature to forecast how much it will cost to build a spaceworthy Kilopower system. If the program receives enough funding, a Kilopower system could be operating on the lunar surface by the mid-2020s.
Before NASA or SpaceX rockets a portable nuclear reactor to Mars or even the Moon, numerous companies are creating portable nuclear power for earthly applications, including TerraPower, a Seattle-area venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
Powering a Habitat on Mars with Kilopower