NASA wants to revolutionize space exploration with its space nuclear reactor technology, better known as the Kilopower program. The space agency will start testing it this month. More importantly, the Kilopower program could be the key technology used for colonizing Mars. According to NASA, the Kilopower program could “literally empower future Mars habitats,” which would transform Mars’ resources into the water, oxygen and fuel, thus enabling humans to live on Mars.
“A space nuclear reactor could provide a high energy density power source with the ability to operate independent of solar energy or orientation, and the ability to operate in extremely harsh environments, such as the Martian surface,” said Patrick McClure, project lead on the Kilopower project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in a statement on NASA’s website.
The reactor’s chief designer, David Poston, noted that the technology could be used in other missions concerning space exploration. Still, the initial project will require scientists to “keep it simple.”
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“Simplicity is essential to any first-of-a-kind engineering project – not necessarily the simplest design but finding the simplest path through design, development, fabrication, safety and testing,” Poston said.
According to NASA, the Kilopower nuclear reactor could produce electricity for 10 or more years continuously, even in the extreme environments on the planet Mars. More importantly, the technology doesn’t depend on solar power, which means that it can continue producing electricity even when night or dust storms reduce sunlight.
“It solves those issues and provides a constant supply of power regardless of where you are located on Mars. Fission power could expand the possible landing sites on Mars to include the high northern latitudes where ice may be present,” said Lee Mason, Space Technology Mission Directorate principal technologist. “The big difference between all the great things we’ve done on Mars and what we would need to do for a human mission to that planet, is power,” Mason added. “This new technology could provide kilowatts and can eventually be evolved to provide hundreds of kilowatts or even megawatts of power. We call it the Kilopower project because it gives us a near-term option to provide kilowatts for missions that previously were constrained to use less. But first things first, and our test program is the way to get started.”
Mason also said that the Kilopower hardware will be put through detailed, step-by-step testing which will last about 28 hours. The testing will be conducted at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Nevada National Security Site.
“The upcoming Nevada testing will answer a lot of technical questions to prove out the feasibility of this technology, with the goal of moving it to a Technology Readiness Level of 5. It’s a breadboard test in a vacuum environment, operating the equipment at the relevant conditions,” said the project’s lead researcher, Marc Gibson.