As part of their plans to send humans to Mars, NASA plans to test nuclear fission reactors that will provide power to the planet.
Scientific American reports that as part of their plans for a manned expedition to Mars, NASA has begun researching nuclear fission reactors that would provide power to equipment on the planet. For the past three years, NASA’s technology development branch has been funding a project called Kilopower which has been developing working nuclear fission reactors that can be transported to Mars. The project is set to be tested for the first time at the Nevada National Security Site near Las Vegas in September of 2018.
The tests being performed on the new Kilopower project in September are designed to validate Kilopower’s design and performance before NASA proceeds with the development of a higher-fidelity system to be tested on Mars or elsewhere.
Lee Mason, who oversees power and energy storage technology development at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, commented on the Kilopower project, saying, “It’ll be the first time that we operate a fission reactor that could be used in space since [the] 1960s SNAP program.” Discussing NASA’s renewed interest in fission power in 2010, Mason continued to say, “At that point, we were trying to find a small fission reactor that could provide similar power output as the radioisotope power systems.”
Solar power is another energy source that NASA has looked into, but it is a restrictive energy source as power generation would have to be situated in areas that are exposed to enough sunlight to regenerate solar batteries. Michelle Rucker, an engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, discussed nuclear fission at NASA’s Future In-Space Operations working group in December, saying, “If you want to land anywhere, surface fission power is a key strategy for that.”
“We’ve landed some really cool things on Mars and they’ve had some pretty remarkable power systems … but they’re not going to cut it for human missions,” Rucker explained.