NASA plans to develop a key energy source which could 'empower' the human crew for its Mars mission by energizing the habitats and powering equipment which could generate oxygen, water, and fuel from the existing resources of the planet.
NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD)-funded Kilopower project aims at a sustainable, sun-independent power source for its energy-intensive missions. The space agency is partnering with the Department of Energy's (DOE) Nevada National Security Site for developing a fission technology which runs through decaying of the radioisotope uranium-235.
Lee Mason, STMD's principal technologist for Power and Energy Storage at NASA Headquarters said, "The Kilopower test program will give us confidence that this technology is ready for space flight development. We'll be checking analytical models along the way for verification of how well the hardware is working."
According to reports, the Kilopower project, based on a Kilopower reactor, would be a small and simple approach for long-duration, sun-independent electric power source for space and extraterrestrial surfaces. The technology would be able to produce one to 10 kilowatts of power continuously for at least 10 years.
The cast uranium-235, at the size of a paper towel roll, would be used as the reactor core of the prototype power system. The reactor's heat would be transferred through sodium heat pipes to Stirling engines which convert heat to electricity. A Stirling engine, like an automobile engine, uses heat to build up the pressure in pistons which moves and generate electricity.
The researchers said that a space-rated fission power unit for Mars explorers would provide a constant supply of power regardless of the location. It could offer a long-lasting power supply and would be better used during the night or when the sunlight is obstructed by dust storms.
The upcoming Nevada testing will answer many technical questions to prove the feasibility of this technology. It's a breadboard test in a vacuum environment, operating the equipment at the relevant conditions... The technology is agnostic to Moon and or Mars environments, said Marc Gibson, the lead researcher.
Earlier NASA missions in the past five decades had used radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs).