NASA announced on Wednesday that it has completed tests of a miniature nuclear reactor that could power future human settlements in outer space. Known as Kilopower, the portable, lightweight system is capable of continuously powering several households on the Moon or Mars for ten years.
Future missions to the Moon, Mars or other destinations in space will require efficient and reliable power sources, but these difficult environments pose significant challenges to many types of power generation, according to NASA. Solar power generation, for example, is not feasible since sunlight on Mars varies from season to season and dust storms can last for months. On the Moon, nighttime can last up to 14 days.
“We want a power source that can handle extreme environments,” Lee Mason, NASA’s chief technologist for power and energy storage, said in a statement. “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 new nuclear reactor would provide power for crucial resources including water, lighting, oxygen and fuel, thereby allowing outposts to be self-sufficient. According to NASA, four Kilopower reactors could support the establishment of an outpost on Mars.
Since astronauts would not be required to take all resources with them, the system could open up new opportunities for space exploration.
“Safe, efficient and plentiful energy will be the key to future robotic and human exploration,” Jim Reuter, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “I expect the Kilopower project to be an essential part of lunar and Mars power architectures as they evolve.”
According to NASA, the nuclear reactor is safe and simple – when turned off, the only radiation emitted is too low to be harmful. Even when turned on, officials said the reactor was both safe and reliable, noting that the technology exceeded expectations during recent tests, which included a 28-hour mission simulation.
“We put the system through its paces. We understand the reactor very well, and this test proved that the system works the way we designed it to work,” Marc Gibson, Kilopower lead engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said in a statement. “No matter what environment we expose it to, the reactor performs very well.”
David Poston, the chief reactor designer for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Los Alamos National Laboratory also emphasised that the reactor was both safe and stable in any environment it encountered, saying the system passed tests “with flying colours.”
As a next step, NASA plans to send the reactor into space to see how Kilopower performs. Over the next year and a half, the team will continue to conduct risk-mitigation studies before flight-testing.