NASA says Mars-bound Portable Nuclear Reactor ready, What next?

Mars Rover images
Image from Curiosity rover NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA said it has successfully tested its much-awaited Kilopower portable nuclear fission reactor designed to support humans to colonize Mars and live there one day. The device will undergo a more serious flight testing next as it paves the way for humans to really aspire to land on Mars soon.

The test called KRUSTY or Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling TechnologY, is being undertaken at the Department of Energy's Nevada National Security Site. Kilopower reactor uses a six-inch chunk of uranium-235 as fuel and the fission reaction generate heat and then converts it into electrical energy.

So far, the NASA team has exceeded their own expectations with an output greater than 4 kilowatts of power at an operating temperature of 800 degrees Celsius, with a power conversion efficiency of 35 percent. It will be scaled up to 10-kilowatt output target. For Martian colony, 4 such reactors would be required to fuel the Martian outpost.

"We need to think about the resources required to stay and explore," said NASA Glenn Research Center director Janet Kavandi. "As we move further into the solar system, there will come a point where carrying all the materials needed or attempting to resupply becomes hazardous. At this point, our explorers will need to be able to generate their own resources," she said.

Kilopower is the first of its kind designed in the last 40 years, said David Poston, the chief reactor designer at the National Nuclear Security Administration's Los Alamos National Laboratory. The reactor has cost them $20 million so far.

The only radiation emitted is too low to be harmful and the simple, self-regulating mechanism makes it safe, he noted. "Astronauts aren't going to want to sit at a reactor control system the whole time," he said.

Kilopower is part of NASA's Mars exploration the agency's grander plans, which include the Orion Spacecraft and Space Launch System, as well as its lunar gateway to be used as a hub for research and deeper space exploration.