NASA says nuclear reactors on Mars are a go

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Jul 10, 2017

So we want a Mars mission, but we’re going to need serious equipment and habitats that generate enough heat to keep humans from turning into space-cicles in the Red Planet’s freezing temperatures—meaning we can’t stay there without a power source.

NASA’s answer to powering all the things is a swarm of nuclear fission reactors. Its technology development branch has been funding Kilopower, which explores this alternative energy as deep-space alternative to fueling spacecraft and equipment on planetary surfaces.Solar power was considered as the other alternative, but generating energy would be impossible in areas where the sun literally doesn’t shine.

The space agency hasn’t tested a fission reactor since the launch of its Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power (SNAP) program in the ‘60s. SNAP was what brought radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) and atom-splitting fission reactors into being. Reactor SNAP-10A has so far been the first and only US nuclear power plant to ever operate outside Earth’s atmosphere. Space probes like Curiosity run on RTGs, which keep them alive with heat that arises from the decay of radioactive elements (think plutonium).

Now the space agency is ready for a nuclear power redux after years of financial, political and technical difficulties. Its interest in the technology was reawakened after looking at RTG system options back in 2010. Backed by NASA’s Game Changing Development program, which advances new space technologies that could transform the way future missions are approached, Kilopower plans to build a test reactor for design and performance by the end of September. 

Kilopower nuclear fission reactor concept. 

“If you want to land anywhere, surface fission power is a key strategy for that,” said NASA engineer Michelle Rucker at a presentation to NASA’s Future In-Space Operations working group last year.

To keep costs from being too astronomical, the 6.5-foot tall prototype will use thermal simulators instead of the full array of engines that convert fission-generated energy into heat. Its electric power output is expected to reach up to 1 killowatt. Human missions to Mars would need about 40 times that, but if this test takes off, NASA will develop a higher-fidelity system for a future trial.

Nuclear reactors will have to power fuel, air and water production equipment, habitats, and battery rechargers for us to have any success at expeditions to Mars and beyond. NASA plans to eventually launch four or five small fission reactors that will activate once they land on the Martian surface.

"We’ve landed some really cool things on Mars and they’ve had some pretty remarkable power systems … but they’re not going to cut it for human missions," said Lee Mason, of NASA’s Glenn Research Center, who oversees power and energy storage technology, at the recent Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C.

That’s worth going nuclear over.

(via NBC Mach)