NASA Runs Successful First Tests of Compact Nuclear Reactor for Mars Base

The Kilopower concept (Image: NASA)
The Kilopower concept (Image: NASA)

If humans have any hope of sticking around on Mars for longer than a few days, they’ll need some form of power to sustain themselves. A successful test in Nevada has demonstrated that that power could be nuclear.


NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy successfully performed their initial tests on a miniature nuclear power system, and will try a more developed test in March. Reuters reports:

Months-long testing began in November at the energy department’s Nevada National Security Site, with an eye toward providing energy for future astronaut and robotic missions in space and on the surface of Mars, the moon or other solar system destinations.

You may remember that human astronauts walked on the moon only a handful of times back in the 1960s and 1970s, and never for longer than three consecutive days. Longer missions planned for Mars, like the one depicted in Andy Weir’s The Martian, would require a power system—one that can handle the planet’s frigid nights, dust storms, and a more distant sun.

Those are the problems NASA’s Kilopower project hopes to solve with a compact nuclear fission reactor that uses a uranium-235 reactor core “roughly the size of a paper towel roll,” reports Reuters. The reactor would provide 10 kilowatts of power, “enough to run two average households... continuously for at least ten years,” according to a NASA release. Four units would be required to operate an outpost, it continues.

 A mockup of Martian base with nuclear reactors (Image: NASA)
A mockup of Martian base with nuclear reactors (Image: NASA)

You may have heard about President Trump’s plan for NASA to set its sights to sending humans back to the moon. A miniature fission reactor could work on other extreme environments, including the moon, said Lee Mason, NASA principal technologist for power and energy storage for power and energy storage, in a release.


NASA doesn’t have precise dates for Kilopower’s full test aside from mid-to-late March. But there’s more work to go. “[A successful test] would be operation at full power with conditions that match our analytical predictions,” Mason told Gizmodo in an email. “If we continue the project toward a flight system, further hardware development and testing would be needed.”

[via Reuters]


Former Gizmodo physics writer and founder of Birdmodo, now a science communicator specializing in quantum computing and birds


Very Little Gravitas Indeed

An interesting tidbit - Kilopower, our best hope for space-based nuclear power in the near future, is still a tiny lightbulb compared to the power demands of something like producing our own methane rocket fuel on Mars. That will require many megawatts of power, and the current best chance of producing it will be a few hundred square meters of solar arrays.

Eventually nuclear power will be essential to human space travel, but I think even Kilopower is too little to win over from solar in many situations.

Kilopower is great for something like Europa where we need heat and power where there is little light or warmth, and there are big mass limitations because you’re only sending one single-ship unmanned mission.

When you’re shipping cargo to the surface of Mars 100 metric tons at a time, and preliminary plans include staging 400T of cargo in support of the first footsteps on world... Solar retains a lot of perks, chief among them being the fact that it’s available now.