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NASA’s nuclear energy project to power space missions

National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) has successfully test demonstrated a new power system which harnesses nuclear energy. This breakthrough experiment could propel future ‘crewed’ space exploration missions to distant space destinations including Mars, and beyond.

NASA & National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) had conducted the four-phase experiments for the KRUSTY (Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology) project from November 2017 till March 2018 at NNSA’s (Nevada National Security) Site. The result of the tests was announced on May 2nd in news conference at its Glenn Research Center. The breakthrough experiments were conducted to find a reliable, safe and abundant source of power for future robotics and manned space missions and are expected to be integrated into the Lunar and Mars missions.

Marc Gibson, Kilopower lead engineer, and Jim Sanzi, Vantage Partners, install hardware on the Kilopower assembly at the Nevada National Security Site in March 2018 (Credits: NNSS)

Longer duration travel and deep space missions require a lot of energy which can’t be sufficiently provided by traditional sources. A nuclear-powered source could be sent on the missions which will help refuel the energy needs. This power source will be safe because the fuel isn’t radioactive enough until it is put into use. So it can be transported along with the crew without causing any damage to them or to any component of the spacecraft. Once used it will provide safe power without a lot of human intervention. When long duration and surface stay missions are executed, the Sun can’t be relied upon as a source of power as there will be times when the spacecraft will have to spend a lot of time in space where it doesn’t receive direct sunlight. Longer duration surface stays on the moon requires a lot of energy which can’t be generated directly from Sun as one lunar night equals fourteen days on Earth. On Mars, the received sun’s energy has a lot of variation throughout its seasons. The periodic and violent dust storms can last for months.

Mars fission power system concept. (Credits: NASA)

This new class of power source can stand such tough and extreme environmental conditions. With such nuclear-powered source, the craters in the shadowed part of the lunar surface can also be explored. Setting up such a system on the lunar surface will require a considerable effort. Kilopower is a small, lightweight fission power system which can supply up to 10 KW of electrical power steadily for a minimum 10 years. An outpost could be established with four such units.

A concept of new fission power system on the lunar surface. (Credits: NASA)

Kilopower project

The project is aimed to develop new ideas and technologies based on nuclear fission that could allow future space missions to stay on planetary surfaces for a longer duration. The goal of the project was to develop a nuclear fission space power prototype for NASA which can be considered while making a choice for surface exploration missions to Moon, Mars and even further into the space.

NASA’s Game Changing Development (GCD) program

The Game Changing Development (GCD) program is a part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate’s (STMD). This program aims to explore new pathways for NASA’s future space missions. It wants to employ entirely new and innovative technologies which can be incubated and developed for NASA’s projects which have the potential to radically change the way in which space missions are executed. The ideas that sound promising will be tested and further developed to take it from laboratory to actual application.

Next Step

This is just the beginning of sending the Kilopower Technology into space. The result of the tests had even surpassed NASA’s expectations. The next mission should be to employ this technology and measure its performance in space. Once successful, the nuclear power system could be enhanced to carry heavy payloads into hitherto unexplored space and reduce the travel time.

The Technical details of the project can be accessed here [pdf].

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