NASA continues to develop a key energy source that could power future space travel through the Kilopower project. The study’s mission aims to provide “a compact, low-cost, scalable fission power system for science and exploration.”

The first-of-its-kind engineering endeavor centers on a reliable, long-lasting, sun-independent electric power design. According to Lee Mason, Space Technology Mission Directorate’s (STMD) principal technologist for Power and Energy Storage at NASA Headquarters, a Kilopower reactor could continuously produce one to 10 kilowatts of electrical power for 10 years or more.

“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,” says Patrick McClure, project lead on the Kilopower work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The prototype system relies on a solid, cast uranium-235 reactor core. Passive sodium pipes transfer heat from the reactor. Stirling engines convert that heat into electricity.

Past missions, including the Mars Curiosity rover, use radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). This system creates electricity passively by harnessing the natural decay of their radioisotope as a heat source. Fission power offers the chance to go beyond RTGs capabilities, which produce around a couple hundred watts. In addition, low-light conditions caused by dust storms, and nighttime power demands will no longer be an issue if the Kilopower project proves a success.

“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,” Mason adds.

According to NASA, essential tests will begin this month and continue into early 2018. During the trials, researchers will conduct hardware validation through scanning analytical models.

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