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How a small nuclear reactor could feed a colony on Mars or beyond (Op-Ed)

  How a small nuclear reactor could power a colony on Mars or beyond (Op-Ed)

Artist's illustration of the umbrella-type heat radiators of four Kilopower nuclear reactors casting shadows on the Martian surface.

Credit: NASA

Patrick McClure is the leader of the Kilopower project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy. UU In New Mexico. David Poston is the chief designer of reactors, also in Los Alamos. They contributed with this article to Expert.com Voices of Space.com: Op-Ed & Insights.

When we imagine sending human beings to live on Mars, the moon or other planetary bodies in the not too distant future, a main question is: How will we strengthen their colony? Not only will they need energy to create a livable environment, but they will also need it to return to Earth. For distant planetary bodies, such as Mars, it is inefficient to bring fuel for the trip home; It's too heavy. That means astronauts need a source of energy to make liquid oxygen and propellant.

But what kind of power source is small but powerful enough to reliably feed an extraterrestrial habitat? [How Living on Mars Could Challenge Colonists (Infographic)]

Enter Kilopower, a small nuclear reactor designed at Los Alamos National Laboratory along with NASA that the agency hopes will one day feed a colony on Mars, the Moon or beyond.

The brightness of Kilopower is its simplicity: with few moving parts, it uses heat pipe technology, invented in Los Alamos back in 1963, to power a Stirling engine. This is how it works: the sealed tube in the heat pipe circulates a fluid around the reactor, picking up the heat and taking it to the Stirling engine. There, thermal energy pressurizes the gas to drive a piston coupled to an engine that generates electricity. Using the two devices in tandem creates a simple and reliable source of electrical energy that can be adapted for space applications, including human exploration missions and space science to external planetary bodies such as the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Kilopower reactorsrange of 1 kilowatt – approximately enough to power a domestic toaster, up to 10 kW. To effectively run a habitat on Mars and create fuel, it would take about 40 kW, so NASA would probably send four to five of the reactors to the surface of the planet.

The advantages of nuclear energy are light and reliable. Other energy sources require too much fuel, which makes them too heavy, or can not be counted on at all stations. Solar energy, for example, depends on constant sunlight. That's something that's missing from Mars, since it depends on the time of day, the time of year, the location on the planet's surface and the severity of the planet's dust storms, which can last for months. Nuclear energy operates independently of the weather or the time of day. In addition, the amount of solar panels and batteries required would again make the rocket to Mars extremely heavy, which would require more fuel.

Experiments to test Kilopower – called KRUSTY (Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology) – began late last year at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) and will culminate in the testing of a reactor core similar to a flight to Full operating temperature this spring. In addition to Los Alamos, NASA and NNSS, the experiment is carried out in collaboration with the NASA Glenn Research Center, the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Y-12 National Security Complex, along with NASA contractors. SunPower and Advanced Cooling Technologies.

Work on this technology is not new. KRUSTY is based on a 2012 experiment conducted by a Los Alamos, NNSS and Glenn team that demonstrated the first use of a heat pipe to cool a small nuclear reactor and power a Stirling engine. These new experiments are based on the knowledge we got from that experiment.

As we look to the future, the potential of nuclear energy to reinforce long-term habitat plans in other planetary bodies is quite extraordinary. While feeding a colony is just one of the many complex technical questions that must be answered when we think about sending human beings to other planets, it is a matter of critical importance. Kilopower could well be the answer. We are excited to see where it will take us.

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