Will the Kilopower Nuclear Reactor Allow Humans to Colonize Mars?

By James Maynard

The Kilopower project is the latest concept from NASA to provide electricity for settlers on Mars, and the space agency reports the first initial test of the system is a success. A suitable source of power is needed to drive electronics and life-support systems, as well as extract oxygen, water, and fuel from the Martian crust and atmosphere.

The Nevada National Security site is housing tests of the miniature nuclear-powered reactor, preparing for the day humans will first set foot on the red planet.

“The Kilopower test program will give us confidence that this technology is ready for space flight development. We’ll be checking analytical models along the way for verification of how well the hardware is working,” Lee Mason, principal technologist for Power and Energy Storage at NASA, stated.

A nuclear fission reactor would provide steady power for a human outpost on Mars, both day and night, as well as times when the habitation is weathering sand storms. Each of the tiny reactors would produce between one and ten kilowatts of power for a decade or more. A typical household runs on around five kilowatts of power. Solar power is challenging to utilize near the poles of Mars, where sunlight is weakest. However, it is in these areas where water ice, another life-sustaining resource, may be easiest to access.

Kilopower reactors are powered by a solid core of uranium-235 the size of a paper towel roll, which uses heat to move pistons, generating electricity, in a manner similar to a Stirling engine.

“Mars is a very difficult environment for power systems, with less sunlight than Earth or the moon, very cold nighttime temperatures, very interesting dust storms that can last weeks and months that engulf the entire planet. So Kilopower’s compact size and robustness allows us to deliver multiple units on a single lander to the surface that provides tens of kilowatts of power,” Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA‘s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said.

Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG’s), capable of providing a couple hundred watts of power of electricity from  radioactive material without the use of moving parts, are utilized on several NASA spacecraft.

The first full-power test of the Kilopower generator is scheduled for late March.


Photo: The Kilopower reactor prototype ready for testing. Courtesy NASA Glenn Research Center.

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