NASA now has a superpowered way to fuel spacecraft 

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Jan 21, 2018

NASA is going places—like the moon, Mars (eventually) and beyond (think deep space past Jupiter). The only problem is that fuel shortage could end up being a serious problem if humans intend to stay there for enough time to actually make any discoveries, but trust the space agency’s Game Changing Development (GCD) Program to have that figured out.

Kilopower is every bit of the futuristic supercharged power source it sounds like. Designed and developed through a collaboration between NASA’s Glenn Research Center, Marshall Space Flight Center and the Los Alamos Laboratory, with the Y12 National Security Complex providing a nuclear reactor core made of enriched uranium, this lightweight fission power source is the next generation of revving up in space. It could plug up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power into spacecraft that would otherwise burn fuel at warp speed. Multiply that by four, and you’ve got an outpost with the capacity to add power as that outpost expands. Think of it as a micro version of a nuclear power plant.

The future has already arrived, because tests on the reactor core have just started at the Nevada National Security Site (NNNS), with more trials that involve connecting the power to the core scheduled for the end of the month.  

“We want a power source that can handle extreme environments,” said Lee Mason, NASA’s principal technologist for power and energy storage. “Kilopower opens up the full surface of Mars, including the northern latitudes where water may reside. On the Moon, Kilopower could be deployed to help search for resources in permanently shadowed craters.”

NASA Kilopower diagram. Credit: NASA

There are places in alien territory that sunlight will never see, which would make relying on solar power impossible for both astronauts and robots. What you need is a massive amount of power that doesn’t weigh spacecraft down. Nuclear fission is a genius solution because splitting an atom’s nucleus releases an unreal burst of heat energy, so unreal that the same amount of energy which would need 3 million pounds of coal could be generate by just one pound of uranium fuel. In a place where you can’t channel the sun’s rays (or anything else) for power, high energy density is your friend.

Fission power will keep blasting off to more out-there ventures. Kilopower could be scaled up to make crewed flights to Mars shorter, make a modular option for human missions to the Moon and Mars, and propel spacecraft carrying heavy cargo even further than the Red Planet. It will also be used for asteroid mining and to fuel satellites and landers that will take off to explore Europa, Titan, Enceladus, Neptune, and Pluto.

“The reactor technology we are testing could be applicable to multiple NASA missions, and we ultimately hope that this is the first step for fission reactors to create a new paradigm of truly ambitious and inspiring space exploration,” said chief reactor designer David Poston.

With Kilopower, Mars may be the next frontier, but it certainly won’t be the final one.

(via NASA)