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Off-Earth Nuclear Reactor Could Be Tested by 2022

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

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A new type of nuclear reactor, intended for use in powering manned outposts on the moon and Mars, could be ready for in-space testing by 2022, project team members reported. No such testing is currently scheduled, however.

The experimental fission reactor, known as Kilopower, was previously successfully tested on Earth through 2017 into 2018. The testing claim of 2022 was made by Patrick McClure, project lead at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory. McClure went on to emphasize that this was his own personal opinion, not the official opinion of NASA.

Kilopower Nuclear Reactor

While nuclear energy has been used in other equipment in NASA endeavors—namely pieces like the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, along with the Curiosity Mars rover— radioisotope thermoelectric generators are known for having low energy output. To work, RTGs convert heat from radioactive decay from plutonium-328 into power. The power demands of manned bases will be more, however.

NASA

A new type of nuclear reactor, intended for use in powering manned outposts on the moon and Mars, could be ready for in-space testing by 2022, project team members reported. No such testing is currently scheduled, however.

According to Space.com, such a base would require 40 kilowatts of continuously available electrical power (KWe), which would cover water purification, heating for habitats, oxygen generation and rover charging, among other demands. The Kilopower reactor is a functional cousin to the reactors found on Earth: The energy from splitting atoms is converted into electricity, with the help of Stirling engines. In previous testing, the reactor successfully converted 30% of fission heat into power.

Kilopower, designed to generate 1 KWe, can be scaled up to 10 KWe, with four reactors potentially meeting the energy needs of a manned base. A single 10 KWe is 11 feet tall, and the reactor element would be around the size of a metal garbage can. With no shielding, the core is about the size of a roll of paper towels. One 10 KWe reactor, equipped with shielding, can weigh 4,400 pounds, roughly 3,300 pounds without.

Kilopower officially kicked off in 2015, but the concept dates back to a plan laid out in 2012. The reactors would only be activated once they were in deep space, cutting out the danger of radiation exposure if the rockets fall back to Earth. The reactor is also self-regulating, meaning that the Stirling engine will draw heat away from the core if things get too hot.

According to The Hill, if the technology is successful, it could facilitate a number of NASA missions, including sending probes to orbit Neptune, for example. The Kilopower reactor also shows promise in providing power for remote military bases and disaster relief operations.

The Kilopower reactor is part of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Game Changing Development program.

   

Tagged categories: Government; Infrastructure; NA; NASA; North America; Nuclear Power Plants; Program/Project Management

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