Scientific News

Nuclear reactors for Martian outposts already being tested at NASA

A nuclear reactor that could be used both on the Moon and on Mars to feed human outposts is being designed and could be tested in space in a few years.

The project, called Kilopower, is working on NASA and the US Department of Energy.
According to a statement by Patrick McClure, a test in space with a prototype could be ready to start in three years even if no official statement was issued by NASA or anyone else.

The prototype would be the size of a refrigerator and should naturally be mounted on a rocket. The prototype could supply up to 10 kW of power, a peak that could be enough for eight medium houses here on Earth.

This is not the first time that we think of nuclear energy as a source of energy in space: in the past NASA has used this type of energy, via radioisotope thermoelectric generators, as regards the propulsion of various space vehicles, such as the probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 of NASA, or for the operation of the rovers, including Curiosity, the NASA rover present on Mars for several years.

Several ground tests have already been carried out and the system seems to work but of course, only the tests in space will have the last word. The generators of these nuclear reactors convert the heat emitted by the radioactive decay of plutonium-238 into electricity.

A lunar or Martian human outpost will need several kilowatts of power constantly available, at least 40 kW according to scientists, to generate electricity for different purposes, for example to purify water, to generate oxygen, to charge the various rovers and means of transport, for heating and for the various research laboratories.

A single reactor would weigh more than 2000 kilograms, most of which represented by shielding. The prototypes built by NASA scientists can last up to 15 years and can generate up to 10 kilowatts of electricity.

This means that at least four of them should be transported to Mars or to the moon to generate the energy needed for a human outpost and that in any case a way must be found to regenerate them or build new ones on the spot.