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The Power Source for a Mars Outpost Could Be Ready in 3 Years

Popular Mechanics logo Popular Mechanics 12/08/2019 David Grossman
© Los Alamos National Laboratory

An experimental miniature nuclear reactor known as Kilopower, meant to power manned outposts beyond Earth, could be ready for an in-flight test as early as 2022, says a project lead project at the Department of Energy's (DOE) Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

In a recent NASA Future In-Space Operations (FISO) Working Group weekly teleconference, Kilopower lead Patrick McClure spoke for himself and not the government when he said, "I think we could do this in three years and be ready for flight."

A single Kilopower, which is part of NASA's Game Changing Development (GCD), could proffer 10 kilowatts of electrical power, which is enough to power multiple average homes. NASA predicts that 4 Kilopower units could be the energy source for a manned outpost continuously for at least 10 years.

an umbrella sitting on top of a sandy beach: An artist’s rendering of what a Kilopower unit would look like on the Moon. © NASA An artist’s rendering of what a Kilopower unit would look like on the Moon.

“We want a power source that can handle extreme environments,” said Lee Mason, NASA’s principal technologist for power and energy storage in January 2018, when a Kilopower passed a test with flying colors. “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.”

The prototype, known as KRUSTY (yes, it's really a Simpsons reference), held within it a solid, cast uranium-235 reactor core and was around the size of a roll of paper towels. "Passive sodium heat pipes transfer reactor heat to high-efficiency Stirling engines, which convert the heat to electricity," NASA explained at the time.

On the teleconference, McClure went into detail about the knowledge gained from the KRUSTY tests. The Kilopower's main competition comes from current space power generators known as radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), which powered spacecraft as far back as the Voyager missions. RTGs, which are also mini-nuclear reactors, are able to convert around 7 percent of fission heat they give off into electricity.

Read more: Mysterious glowing light on Mars captured by Nasa's Curiosity probe (The Independent)

The KRUSTY, on the other hand, was able to give off 30 percent. "This was an extremely successful test," McClure said.

Of course, projects can get delayed for a variety of reasons, from accidents to poor construction. NASA need not look any further than the James Webb Space Telescope to see how a complex project can become a delayed slog.

Currently, NASA's official roadmap to manned outposts on other worlds has the timeline set for the 2030s. If both timelines hold, then one of the biggest challenges facing life on Mars—power—could have an answer soon.

Source: Space

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