NASA's Kilopower Project Will Bring Us to Mars and Beyond With Nuclear Power
On Thursday, NASA and the Department of Energy convened at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas to explain their joint Kilopower project, a new generation of nuclear power plants that will harness nuclear fission, also known as atom splitting, with the express purpose of exploring deep space.
"There hasn't been any tangible progress in fission reactor technology in decades," Dave Poston, chief reactor designer at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said during the conference.
Using nuclear power to explore space might seem like a dangerous proposition, but our most ambitious space missions have relied on it since 1965.
Spacecrafts like Voyagers 1 and 2 and the Curiosity rover generated power through radioscope thermoelectric generators by turning the heat from decaying plutonium into electricity, but the process was never efficient enough for more advanced missions.
A reliable and efficient power system will make daily necessities like lighting, water and oxygen stable in space. It will also help astronauts fulfill mission objectives and run experiments more efficiently, along with producing fuel for the long journey home. Kilopower fits the bill because is both inexpensive and efficient—a space fission power system could provide up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power, which is enough to run two average households continuously for at least ten years. It would only take four kilowatts to establish an outpost in space.
This means that fission power can provide enough energy for us to explore space without fear of prematurely depleting our resources. On a planet like Mars, the power of the sun is constantly in flux with the seasons, and dust storms can make travel on or off the planet impossible for months. This requires substantial reserves that only kilopower can effciently provide.
"We want a power source that can handle extreme environments," says 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."
With atom splitting also comes radiation, though. To that end, scientists explained the safety precautions that must be taken in order to assure that use of kilopower doesn't cause more harm than good. "The reactor would not be operated until reaching the surface of a planet or being placed on a trajectory leaving Earth," the briefing says. "During planetary surface operations, the reactor would have sufficient radiation shielding to protect crew members and prevent damage to sensitive equipment. The reactor design includes inherent fault tolerance, so that loss of cooling would result in an automatic reduction in fission power that prevents uncontrolled scenarios."
That's certainly a relief, as radiation is less capable of creating a generation of new Hulks, and would more likely wipe out all life on earth. Once astronauts reached Mars, there would be a pretty serious amount of radiation to deal with there, too.