Project Kilopower: NASA is about to drop big news on nuclear power in space
NASA is set to make a major announcement about ‘Kilopower’, the umbrella project focusing on nuclear energy in space, it has revealed in a press release. Before you go picturing a nuclear reactor plonked on the moon, this is a bit more nuanced than that; the Kilopower reactor is powered by nuclear fission, making it a viable alternative to the conventional radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) currently used to power spacecraft. But it’s simple, relatively inexpensive and has precedent – it uses fuels and technologies with which NASA’s scientists are already well-acquainted.
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The ultimate goal of the Kilopower project, according to the space agency, is set up a nuclear fission powered system to support “missions to the moon, Mars, and destinations beyond”: “Kilopower could provide safe, efficient and plentiful energy for future robotic and human space exploration missions,” explains the space agency. Pretty lofty aspirations, then.
Experiments were conducted at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) deep in the Nevada desert, an established nuclear testing site used way back in the 1950s. They took place from November 2017 to March 2018, with the big announcement scheduled for 2 May this year, so there’s only a matter of weeks to wait before our rampant curiosity is quelled.
It is hoped that ‘Kilopower’ will sustain spacecraft and crew as they perform daily functions, such as generating light, water and oxygen, communicating with the space agency back home and conducting experiments. It would provide about ten times more power than the system currently used, the aforementioned multi-mission RTGs, allowing for much longer space exploration.
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Indeed, conventional sources of energy on space missions currently preclude us for travelling anywhere for too long; the sun falling on Mars varies enormously from month to month, and dust storms can linger for a matter of months, making it difficult to use solar energy for sustenance. Meanwhile, lunar nights on the moon can last up to 14 days, again, not ideal if your primary energy source is the sun.
Understandably, the concept of nuclear reactors in space can be a little… stomach-churning. But using nuclear fission to sustain spacecrafts would provide a power source able to withstand the toughest environments, meaning enormously exciting things for the future scope of space travel.
“We want a power source that can handle extreme environments,” explains Lee Mason, NASA’s principal technologist for power and energy storage. “Kilopower opens up the full surface of Mars, including the northern latitudes where water may reside. On the moon, ‘Kilopower’ could be deployed to help search for resources in permanently shadowed craters.”
As for now, we’re on the edge of our seats until 2 May, when NASA will unveil its findings.