Compact Nuclear Fission Reactors Could One Day Power Our Martian Colonies

Jon Howard
January 21, 2018

The discovery earlier this month that the planet is hiding massive water ice reserves just beneath its surface could have far-reaching ramifications, possibly giving future humans on Mars easy access to water supplies.

Scientists have trialled a small nuclear reactor that could be used to sustain life on the uninhabitable surface of Mars, officials announced yesterday.

This time around, engineers focused on building something small, dependable and relatively cheap using existing technology and readily available nuclear fuel. That means the astronauts need a power source to make liquid oxygen and propellant.

The two United States government bodies began trialling the reactor late a year ago, the website says, with harsher tests for a flight-ready power generator due to commence in spring.

"Located in a remote, high-security area of Southern Nevada, we're ideally suited to conduct unique experiments in our indoor, outdoor and underground national facilities", said Mark Martinez, president of Mission Support and Test Services, the managing and operating contractor for the test site. A number of different solutions are in testing, of course, but one in particular could be the key.

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Project lead Patrick McClure said the device creates new opportunities for astronauts working in extreme conditions.

"The brilliance of Kilopower is its simplicity: With few moving parts, it uses heat-pipe technology, invented at Los Alamos way back in 1963, to power a Stirling engine", the two wrote.

The small reactor, created to have as few moving parts as possible, uses heat-pipe technology developed by Los Alamos in 1963. There, the heat energy pressurizes gas to drive a piston coupled to a motor that generates electricity.

Looking for a way to supplement radioisotope power systems that use naturally decaying plutonium-238, NASA officials discussed the Nuclear Systems Kilopower Project today at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. Versions range from 1 kilowatt - enough to power a basic toaster - to ten kilowatts and Kilopower project researchers said in a Space.com article that around four or five of the latter would be needed to power a habitat on Mars. The nuclear-powered satellite was shut down after 43 days due to an electrical failure not related to its power source. On Mars, where there is considerably less sunlight than on Earth, solar panels aren't that effective which is why nuclear power is so appealing. That's something that's lacking on Mars, since it depends on the time of day, the time of year, the location on the planet surface and the severity of the planet's dust storms, which can last for months.

Curiosity also operates on nuclear power. First, it's far more lightweight and reliable compared to other energy sources that are heavy and require too much fuel to feasibly transport.

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