NASA to Discuss New Space Fission Power System on Thursday

Mars fission power system concept. (Credit: NASA)

LAS VEGAS (NASA PR) — NASA and its partners will host a news conference at noon EST (9 a.m. PST) Thursday, Jan. 18, at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, to discuss a recent experiment involving a new power source that could provide the safe, efficient and plentiful energy needed for future robotic and human space exploration missions.

Audio of the news conference and presentation slides will stream live on NASA’s website.

Representatives from NASA, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) Los Alamos National Laboratory and Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) will discuss and take questions on the Kilopower project, which aims to demonstrate space fission power systems technology that has the potential to enable future crewed surface missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. Testing began in November 2017 and is expected to continue through March.

The news conference participants will be:

  • Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate
  • Angela Chambers, manager of the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Criticality Safety Program
  • Mark Martinez, president of Mission Support and Test Services, LLC, which manages and operates the Nevada National Security Site for the NNSA
  • Janet Kavandi, director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center
  • Lee Mason, NASA’s principal technologist for power and energy storage
  • Pat McClure, Kilopower project lead at Los Alamos
  • Marc Gibson, Kilopower lead engineer at Glenn Research Center
  • Dave Poston, chief reactor designer at Los Alamos

Members of the public also can ask questions during the briefing on social media using #AskNASA.

Supporting images and video will be available online at:

https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/kilopower

The Kilopower project is part of NASA’s Game Changing Development program and is led by the agency’s Glenn Research Center, in partnership with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Los Alamos, NNSS and the Y-12 National Security Complex.

  • P.K. Sink

    I like it. Seems like NASA is coming out of the closet under this administration concerning space based nuclear power.

  • Michael Halpern

    Other than for outer solar system, i am skeptical of the necessity, unless you want to restrict a lot of launches to companies like ULA, the problems with nuclear on crewed missions isn’t just radiation, or the fact that its still a finite amount of power, but combined with solar, there is also means of power gen as part of ICLSS and we don’t need electric primary propulsion for human spaceflight, also the size limits the efficiency of that kind of system

  • P.K. Sink

    Other than for outer solar system…

    Agreed.

  • ThomasLMatula

    It’s not for propulsion or for robotic spacecraft. It’s for human Mars and Lunar surface operations. And it’s needed, because of the long Lunar night and the weak sunlight during Martian winters and dust storms.

    Actually it probably uses a lot less mass than sending solar panels and batteries for human facilities on either the Moon or Mars.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Based on the Viking in the background this picture must have been taken at NASA Glenn. I wonder why they did the press conference in Las Vegas at the National Atomic Testing Musuem? Are they planning on testing it there?

  • Michael Halpern

    Why humans on the Moon? And you don’t need it for Mars you can store methane or biofuel

  • Search

    Earlier reports said kilopower was going to be tested late 2017-early 2018 at Nevada Nuclear site http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/ON-NASA-to-test-prototype-Kilopower-reactor-1711174.html

    So this should be good news about results.

  • Search

    In fairness this thing goes back probably to aftermath of cancelled Jupiter Icy Moons effort – so glad to see there is some continuous sanity in both R and D admins and Congresses on the need for this.

  • Search

    Makes sense even for Mars outside of tiny rovers that can make do with RTG and solar arrays. See here https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/373667main_NASA-SP-2009-566-ADD.pdf. (section 3.7). Moon might trade closer but fission systems still have several advantages.

    Why do you think only ULA is certified to launch National Asset class payloads? There is also SpaceX, eventually SLS, and probably Blue Origin that will have satisfied that confidence. Solar systems are bulkier and cell cover materials are susceptible to dust as well as environmental radiation over long durations – so while solar is absolutely part of the overall solution they arent a panacea.

    Electric propulsion capable of low continuous thrusting is exaclty what is needed for human in-spaceflight because it is the only way to reduce long duration spaceflight, which presents far more hazards on biolgical systems than artifical ones.

  • Michael Halpern

    Only ULA has a vehicle certified for nuclear material,

  • Kenneth_Brown

    I’d like to see some work on LFTR reactors for off-Earth power systems. The lack of a need for a heavy pressure vessel and the probability of designs that can shut themselves down gracefully without active management makes sense in an environment where there might not be room for a dedicated expert or three to constantly monitor the power source.

    i also would like to see a more systems oriented approach to creating power systems for a lunar colony. Putting all of the eggs in one basket is a big problem when that one design turns out to have a fatal flaw. Has there been any research into fission reactor behavior outside of Earth’s atmosphere? We take our magnetic field for granted.

    Did I miss what the plans were for power conversion?

  • Terry Stetler

    Atlas V has a short half-life for govt missions, the RD-180 problem, and Delta 4/Delta4 Heavy are being phased out by 2023. So, Vulcan will he starting dead even with F9/FH, New Glenn, possibly BFR, and NGL in the upcoming EELV Delta 4 Heavy replacement competition.

    My guess is all their choices will be nuclear capable for redundancy.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    You mean, of course, MSR: Molten Salt Reactors. LFTR is a specific and rather more complex MSR design – simple uranium burners are much easier. I don’t think the lack of a magnetic field is much of an issue, beyond the usual electronics issue. The big problem for MSRs beyond Earth is gravity, or lack thereof. One of the major benefits of liquid fuel is its ability to expand and so self-control reactivity for load-following. It’s difficult to see how to simply allow for liquid expansion spaces in zero-g.

    Power conversion to electricity is at least half the difficulty, cost and mass. Solar power has the problems of intermittency, huge area and expensive batteries. Fission has the problem of power conversion, shielding, and complexity. The article is talking about kilowatts not megawatts, so I’m guessing something along the lines of thermoelectric or heatengine, rather than steam generation to a turbine.

    Shut-down and control are not really issues; more like a myths of dramatised fiction. Complete loss of cooling leading to meltdown is the problem. For MSRs meltdown is a non-issue and they can be designed with permanent cooling.

  • Paul451

    Fission has the problem of power conversion, shielding, and complexity.

    And radiators. The mass of the radiators alone can equal an entire solar array of the same power.

  • Paul451

    Did I miss what the plans were for power conversion?

    Sterling engines.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Yes, there;s loads of mass with fission, but then batteries would almost certainly be even more massive – it all depends on the location and scale required. Usually you’d say that fission only makes sense for high power – good for cities, industry, hunkering down during planet wide dust storms, and possibly a multi-megawatt vasimr. The article information is rather vague, so we’ll have to for the news conference. I’m really interested to see what they have in mind. Clearly though they’re thinking of situations where batteries would be required, and presumably the system they will be presenting offers some sort of advantage over the simplicity of panels and batteries.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Is that a guess, or did you find it somewhere?

  • Kenneth_Brown

    I specifically am suggesting a Thorium based MSR.

    The lack of a magnetic field means a higher ambient radiation level that can vary considerably. It’s a factor I’m not sure can be disregarded.

    I see the reactors being installed and used on a planet rather than in space so zero G operation is not a factor.

    The last time I talked with an engineer at Teledyne, he let me know that RTG designs were moving away from thermocouples to stirling engines. That could be a good solution into kW ranges. We also had some fun working out some rough approximations of power output with an RTG buried in the moon. Most designs for space are designed for radiative heat transfer which isn’t very efficient.

    For the moon and Mars, thermal storage could be a good approach since a lot of power will be used for some sort of heating. Electrical usage can be rationed at night for limited use with larger usage only allowed during the day. We are spoiled on Earth to have power any time we want it. On Mars, working days might be limited from can to can’t with night owls out of luck. The moon will be a bigger challenge, but it may be possible to build or ship in more power storage than can be shipped to Mars. Yet another ISRU project.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    I don’t know. Solar panels for the moon don’t need as much structure or protection. Hail and snow loading isn’t an issue. It also could be well worth the shipping cost to send a large load of solar PV.

    It would be interesting to have a crawler on the moon that scoops up regolith in the front and extrudes power cable from the back end. It would take some time, but PV panels can be wrapped around to extend the power day until it’s available all of the time.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    The moon is a great training ground. There are commercial possibilities and, in an emergency, people could get back to Earth in just a few days. On Mars, one emergency could mean death to an entire colony.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    LFTR needs a more complex core, refined lithium and a considerable chemical processing component, which is a definite drag for bringing an MSR to fruition asap; making use of Thorium more of a long-term solution.

    Surely core shielding would make external radiation affecting reactivity a non-issue?.

    Would be nice to see Stirling engines have their day in the limelight.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “The moon is a great training ground.”

    Umm, do you really want to practice surviving on the Moon?. I’d say, if you’re not 100% confident in your power systems, then don’t go. The Moon over Mars argument fails this logic. There may be reasons to go to the Moon, but “training” is not one of them.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    The only sensible early lunar destination is permanently sun lit poles. For anywhere else, if you really want to experience a 14 day night at -250 C, then take some nuclear power.

  • Paul451

    It’s all over the PR guff.

    Example: “The prototype power system uses a solid, cast uranium-235 reactor core, about the size of a paper towel roll. Reactor heat is transferred via passive sodium heat pipes, with that heat then converted to electricity by high-efficiency Stirling engines. A Stirling engine uses heat to create pressure forces that move a piston, which is coupled to an alternator to produce electricity, similar in some respects to an automobile engine.”

    https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/feature/Powering_Up_NASA_Human_Reach_for_the_Red_Planet

    [Another release (can’t find it now) says it has multiple sterling engines, each producing about 100 watts of the 1 to 10kw reactor power.]

  • Paul451

    and possibly a multi-megawatt vasimr.

    Except that’s where it doesn’t make sense. The mass and scale of the radiators (even ignoring the reactor/etc) will be higher than the equivalent mass/scale of solar panels for anywhere inside of the asteroid belt.

    The only place nuclear power makes sense is the moon (14 day night is too much for battery power). Possibly Mars (the 12hr night is much more manageable), but only if someone else pays for the development. A bespoke system for Mars isn’t worth the effort, given that solar/batteries is proven and immediately available. OTOH, if you can grab a standardised plug’n’play nuke off the shelf, why not.

  • Paul451

    The only sensible early lunar destination is permanently sun lit poles.

    There aren’t any. That’s been shown for several years, thanks to some of the recent probes. (The Japanese probe, especially, IIRC.)

    Every site experiences some periods of darkness, just for shorter periods than normal sites. For example, the ridge above De Gerlache Crater has 6 days of continuous darkness each month during lunar winter.

  • Robert G. Oler

    so the NatGeo “Mars” episode something scenario is “unrealistic” ?

  • Robert G. Oler

    actually I would argue there is a lot of “training” that can be done on the moon…the phrase I would use is “procedure gathering” but why quibble

    if nothing else the Moon allows far shorter crew cycles…which at the start would be needed

  • Michael Halpern

    Earth makes a better training ground, more similar conditions in some parts of the world. Commercial doesn’t need humans on the Moon constantly

  • Michael Halpern

    If an emergency means death of the entire crew, you have poor mission design,

  • Michael Halpern

    Besides which despite engineering challenges, a mobile base on the Moon is probably more feasible and useful if you want a moon base, due to low gravity it may not be difficult to stay lit most of the time on wheels

  • Michael Halpern

    The thing is the politics, and needing to rad scrub for fully reusable rockets or figuring out the requirements to refly a spacecraft that has transported nuclear material, regardless of how actually required some of the effort is, you can bet on someone writing a law about that that makes it extra tedious

  • WhoAmI

    Some stats not mentioned in article or earlier comments: Suggested sizes include 800W (400kg, 2W/kg), 1kW* (600kg, 1.7W/kg), 3kW (750kg, 4W/kg) and 10kW (1800kg, 5W/kg).

    *All are Sterling engines but for the 1kW example which is Thermoelectric — not sure why.
    https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20160012354.pdf

    In comparing with solar + batteries on spacecraft, keep in mind the structures to support both. It might seem the solar requires more structure, but the nuclear examples all show them extended away from the spacecraft about 6m to 10m. I assume this is to reduce the impact of radiation from the power source on the spacecraft electronics. I can imagine a larger amount of extension for human spaceflight.

  • Michael Halpern

    It doesn’t make sense if you want any sort of colony, the fuel is an imported resource finite and essential not good. The key to a colony is being able to expand power and infrastructure via local resources.

    You don’t need electric propulsion to get to Mars faster, electric propulsion is good for slow trips, carry a lot of methalox, the defining nature of electric propulsion is while efficient it is very low thrust also such a reactor for hsf would require huge radiators

  • windbourne

    There is nothing difficult about lftr. It was built and tested in the 60/70s, and is now being rebuilt as thorcon.

  • windbourne

    Uh no.
    Already been done and a simple thermal plug solves the meltdown issue.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    No LFTR has not been done, the MSRE (Molten Salt Reactor Experiment) that ran from 1965-1969 was a single fluid reactor, although they did demonstrate the ability to use U235, P239 and U233. U233 would be the fuel for a LFTR. LFTR is breeder “two-fluid” design – U233 it is bred from Th232 in a blanket, separated chemically, and then re-introduced into the core. There is no core “meltdown” event for a fluid fuel reactor. The violent sudden release of Iodine and Caesium that occurs when a solid core actually physically melts, does not happen – gaseous fission products are released slowly as a matter of operation and the Iodine and Caesium are chemically bound into the salts. Fission product decay heat (which is what causes a meltdown in a solid core after cooling has been lost) can be dealt with by draining, via a freeze plug (and gravity), or using passive cooling systems – passive cooling is perhaps the more elegant and preferred method for commercial designs.
    Thorcon uses U235 as the primary fuel, with the intention of adding some Thorium in place of some of the U238, but it is essentially a simple uranium burner. Adding the Thorium makes it neutronically inferior, but reduces the actinide content of the waste stream, though all MSRs offer a considerable improvement in this regard over solid fuels. The biggest advantage of the ThorCon approach is the offsite, shipyard (literally) manufacturing. Most MSR designs intend using factory “production line” built reactor cores, but Thorcon is building almost the entire plant in a shipyard for barge delivery to site.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    LFTR is far more difficult that most MSR designs – see response above

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I will quibble. The Moon is closer and so planning and logistics might be considered “easier”. Mars is no holiday, but the Moon is far harsher – temperature, vacuum, nasty regolith, radiation. The same if not better argument could be made that Mars first would be good Training for the Moon. In truth, either destination would provide some experience and preparation for the other, but both are sufficiently different from each other that trying to justify going to one first as training or practice for the other is not really a good argument.
    Both destinations have pros and cons in a “which first” debate. I will agree that the Moon can probably be done sooner, which is certainly in its favour.

  • Jeff2Space

    Good observation on keeping it away from the spacecraft. Deploying one on the surface of Mars makes this a bit easier, but you’d still need some hefty (heavy) power cables going from the power system back to the HAB/spacecraft, so the further away you place it, the more mass is required for the system.