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Since November, NASA has been testing a compact, low-cost nuclear reactor for future space exploration missions. Kilopower could provide more than enough power for surface missions on Mars or the Moon.
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NASA and the Department of Energy are working together to create a nuclear power source that can be used in future missions. The compact size and power generation efficiency of Kilopower could help provide future human exploration missions.
NASA media event for Kilopower
On January 18, NASA held a media event where the agency discussed its Kilopower project and how it could be useful for future robotic or human space exploration missions. The tests began last November and are expected to continue until March.
When testing began last November, the Space Technology Mission (STMD) chief technologist Lee Mason stated that the tests will give the agency confidence that Kilopower is ready to develop for space flight.
What is Kilopower?
The Kilopower project is a NASA program in collaboration with the Department of Energy, which aims to create small sources of nuclear energy for space exploration. For the project, scientists have created small nuclear fission plants that work with uranium instead of plutonium. Each of these plants could produce 10 kilowatts of electrical power continuously for 10 years or more and can also be combined to create more energy for more energy-intensive systems, such as housing.
To put this in perspective, the power systems in previous robotic missions provided only 200 watts of power. If the tests prove successful, Kilopower could produce more than 10 times more energy than previously used systems.
Applications for surface missions
The agency believes that Kilopower has merits to help future missions that would require surface exploration perhaps on Mars or on the moon. This includes provisioning tasks and mission tasks such as drilling, mining, refrigeration, rover recharge, manufacturing and communication.
Experts estimate that a human exploration mission would require 40 kilowatts of continuous power, a consumption that a set of Kilopower could potentially provide even during dust storms and regardless of location, since it does not depend on the sun.
Is Kilopower safe?
Naturally, there are doubts regarding the safety of using a nuclear power system in space. After all, the same questions are asked about the energy systems here on Earth, so sending such technology into space can be quite complicated. As such, some precautionary measures that NASA has outlined include keeping the device off until it has reached the planet's surface, as well as having ample protection against radiation to protect crew members during operations.
"It would have tremendous impact missions that would not otherwise be achievable," Mason said.
In fact, with this power generator independent of the sun, Kilopower could allow more ambitious space exploration missions than ever before.
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