Sending humans to Mars has been NASA’s biggest project for a while now, but doing just that is not enough. The agency also needs to figure out a way to provide new colonists with power that will provide fuel production, habitats, and also allow using other equipment.
One of the potential options is to use a small nuclear fission reactor. Once it gets set up on Mars, it would easily provide the heat by splitting uranium atoms. That same heat would then be converted into electricity, which would solve a lot of current problems.
For three years now, one of NASA’s branches has been working on a project by the name of Kilopower. The project should finally be tested in a period between September and January, and the location will be Nevada National Security Site.
NASA’s last fission reactor project was way back in the 60s’, and its name was SNAP (Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power). The tests conducted back then lead to two types of nuclear power. One of them includes radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which have helped with powering space probes, and even Curiosity rover.
The other one is a fission reactor capable of splitting an atom. SNAP-10A is the name of the first and only nuclear power plant belonging to the US that has operating in space. It worked for 43 days in 1965, and it made around 500 watts of electricity. Eventually, the equipment failed, and the craft orbits the Earth since then.
On the other hand, Russia has had more activities when it comes to this, and they have had several smaller fission reactors that were sent into orbit.
NASA spent half a century after SNAP trying to come up with a similar project and enhance it, but multiple issues were slowing down, or even completely stopping the further development. Kilopower is the first program in a long while to have come this far, and its goal is making as well as testing a small fission reactor before the end of the fiscal year. Its cost is around $15 million.
The project will be tested in September, and these tests will also show its performance, as well as design. If successful, the next step for NASA is making a bigger version that will be suitable for conducting tests on Mars.
The reactor is supposed to produce around 1 kilowatt of electricity. It will probably be capable of producing even more than that, but in order to prevent major costs, the agency only included the necessary machinery. Because of it, some amount of energy will be wasted during the tests.
Interest in this option was rediscovered within NASA back in 2010. Back then, the agency was trying to find a decent option for radioisotope power systems. The final solution needs to be able to create around 40 kilowatts of power. For comparison, that is about the same amount of energy that is needed for eight houses.
RTG can only supply some 125 watts, which isn’t even enough for a microwave oven. Another option that was considered was solar power. However, that would only provide enough power to those parts that get the most sunlight. Which would be hard enough even on Earth, and is almost impossible on Mars. The sunniest place there only receives one-third of the Earth’s sunlight amount.
Because of all these issues, the fission reactor seems to be the only currently available option, and so NASA decided to focus on that. It can even work properly on Mars’ weather conditions. Despite the fact that some other power systems sent to Mars during earlier launches worked relatively decently, they do not provide enough power for human needs.
We will need a way of making water, air, as well as fuel. Not to mention running a habitat, or recharging batteries that the equipment will be using. If several fission reactors are sent to the Red Planet, and each of them is capable of making some 10 kilowatts, it should be enough for sustaining humans up there.
All of the units would only activate when they reach Mars, and they would not be operating at launch, which means that they also wouldn’t be giving off any radiation.