Will NASA Go Nuclear to Return to the Moon? https://t.co/edk0OYxOGp
After a half-century struggle to develop a nuclear power plant for use in space, NASA just completed a successful test of a brand-new design. The next milestone for the new reactor, called Kilopower, could be an inaugural spaceflight sometime in the 2020s. Developed with the Department of Energy (DoE), Kilopower marks the first new nuclear reactor of any kind in the U.S. in 40 years. It could transform energy production for space exploration, especially for permanent human outposts elsewhere in the solar system.
Current space missions use fuel cells, nuclear batteries or solar power. But a night on the moon lasts two weeks, and the strength of sunlight on Mars is only about 40 percent that of Earth. “When we go to the moon and eventually on to Mars, we are likely going to need large power sources not dependent on the sun, especially if we want to live off the land,” says Jim Reuter, NASA’s acting associate administrator for space technology.
Kilopower is a small, lightweight fission reactor that can provide up to 10 kilowatts of electricity. NASA says four 10-kilowatt Kilopower units would provide enough electricity to power a human outpost on Mars or the moon. For comparison, 40 kW is enough to power three to eight typical American houses, says Claudio Bruno, an engineering professor at the University of Connecticut who studies nuclear energy. He adds that 40 kilowatts would be roughly equivalent to 60 horsepower. “You get a sense that it is very modest power. In truth, if you want to do anything useful, especially if missions to the moon or Mars are crewed missions, you need lots more than that,” he says. “But this said, every time this research was done in the past, there were hues and cries about the mortal danger of nuclear power. This is the first time [in decades] they are talking about powering an electricity generator with a nuclear reactor, so it is a first, positive signal.”
In space exploration nuclear energy can be used in two main ways: for generating electricity or for propulsion. Kilopower would be used to produce electricity, much like a power plant on Earth. It would likely produce more than a single spacecraft would need, making it a better fit for larger surface outposts. Kilopower could also be used to drive a spacecraft, primarily by powering an ion engine, although NASA presently has no definitive plans to use it in this way.