NASA Experiments with Kilopower Fission Reactor

Kilopower reactor (Credit: NASA)

CLEVELAND (NASA PR) — When astronauts someday venture to the Moon, Mars and other destinations, one of the first and most important resources they will need is power. A reliable and efficient power system will be essential for day-to-day necessities, such as lighting, water and oxygen, and for mission objectives, like running experiments and producing fuel for the long journey home.

That’s why NASA is conducting experiments on Kilopower, a new power source that could provide safe, efficient and plentiful energy for future robotic and human space exploration missions.

This pioneering space fission power system could provide up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power — enough to run two average households — continuously for at least ten years. Four Kilopower units would provide enough power to establish an outpost.

About the Experiment

The prototype power system was designed and developed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center in collaboration with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, while the reactor core was provided by the Y12 National Security Complex. NASA Glenn shipped the prototype power system from Cleveland to the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) in late September.

The team at the NNSS recently began tests on the reactor core. According to NASA Glenn’s Marc Gibson, the Kilopower lead engineer, the team will connect the power system to the core and begin end-to-end checkouts this month. Gibson says the experiments should conclude with a full-power test lasting approximately 28 hours in late March.

The Kilopower advantage

Fission power can provide abundant energy anywhere we want humans or robots to go. On Mars, the sun’s power varies widely throughout the seasons, and periodic dust storms can last for months. On the Moon, the cold lunar night lingers for 14 days.

“We want a power source that can handle extreme environments,” says Lee Mason, NASA’s principal technologist for power and energy storage. “Kilopower opens up the full surface of Mars, including the northern latitudes where water may reside. On the Moon, Kilopower could be deployed to help search for resources in permanently shadowed craters.”

In these challenging environments, power generation from sunlight is difficult and fuel supply is limited. Kilopower is lightweight, reliable and efficient, which makes it just right for the job.

For more information about the Kilopower project, visit:

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

  • Jeff2Space

    The fact sheet that is at the bottom of the project page (link at the bottom of the article) is quite interesting. This is a “monolithic-core heat-pipe reactor power system”. The test article is 1-kWe but should scale up to 10-kWe. Beyond that, “For human exploration, multiple 10-kWe Kilopower systems could provide the 40 kWe initially estimated to be needed by NASA’s preliminary concepts for a human outpost”.

    This sounds great, if NASA can manufacture these reactors at a rate of at least 1 per year.

  • Michael Halpern

    It’s good for short term, any long term mission would require sustainable power which is my chief critism on the notion of using nuclear power for colonization, exploration sure, however the fuel production is a complex process using rare materials that get depleted from use and over time,

  • newpapyrus

    There are extensive regions on the Moon that are rich in thorium. So the Moon could be the principal supplier of nuclear fuel (thorium and uranium 233) for worlds such as Mars, Mercury, and Callisto.

    Marcel

  • Michael Halpern

    Having the raw material is only a small part of the problem in addition thorium reactors are MUCH less energy dense and natural uranium is not a good fuel either, you have to refine it, for colonization to work you need local energy not something that relies on imports, you want to be as self sufficient as possible as quickly as possible, importing your energy supply is NOT an option.

  • newpapyrus

    Again, thorium is an abundant– local fuel– on the Moon. And an industrialized colony on the lunar surface should have no problems refining thorium for nuclear power.

    Spent Fuel and the Thorium Solution

    http://newpapyrusmagazine.blogspot.com/2014/09/spent-fuel-and-thorium-solution.html

  • Michael Halpern

    Carbon and nitrogen aren’t abundant on the Moon so colonizing there is not feasible for a proper colony, Mars is the only nearish term option

  • Jeff2Space

    My guess is we’re at least several decades, if not a century or two, away from a colony on the moon that will “have no problems refining thorium for nuclear power”.

  • Jeff2Space

    Best get started on terraforming Venus really soon then.

  • Michael Halpern

    With that timescale “soon” is relative

  • Michael Halpern

    The only reason Venus is an option is because it has most of the resources to (with a lot of time and effort) become Earth like, and it is the only planet in the solar system this is true for

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Heavy water moderated fission reactors don’t need the same enriched fuel as a light water reactor. Of course, you need a bunch of heavy water, not likely to be found in quantity on the moon. A local fuel is best and chemically separating Thorium from a matrix is much easier than isotopic separation. Power conversion will be an issue depending on how much efficiency they need to get from the reactor.

    A nuclear reactor has the benefit of being a base line power supply and waste heat will be useful for keeping living quarters above freezing. PV power on the moon will be good for more electricity to run experiments and manufacturing. Storage is more of an issue so the operations on a lunar base aren’t extremely cyclic.

  • Michael Halpern

    which is why I would ignore the moon unless we are talking about short term outposts and a machine colony, If I was really serious about the Moon for whatever reason I would invest in a Cycler station or a few of them stagered, but I would need a good reason to do it.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    The nearest term option for what? Trade of tangible items between Earth and Mars isn’t financially viable until a very high value material that can be made on Mars and not on Earth is found. In the mean time, the nations on Earth are footing the bill for billions of dollars of expenses to send people and materials to Mars until enough industry can be constructed on Mars so they can build spacecraft themselves. That might be a tough thing to prioritize since it draws labor and materials away from other projects that will be even more important for long term human survival.

  • redneck

    Working on good reasons should be a priority then. Not necessarily good as I would think, but good reasons for investors. Not sarcasm, investors require reasons that resonate for them.

  • Michael Halpern

    inititially it will be data coming from Mars, you would use BFS which can SSTO off of Mars,and return to Earth, another product (mostly value added) will be alcohol, because of the fact its from Mars will fetch a high price, because of the different gravity alloys will form differently, there may be a marketable advantage there. Its mostly a settler’s economy not an imperial economy though, you want them self sufficient as quickly as possible, “trade” in the traditional sense will happen later

  • Kenneth_Brown

    I don’t trust Elon Musk to guess my weight and the BFS is a computer animation, nothing else. Yes, I’ve seen the big CF tank. Elon’s story is full of holes. Saying that the BFS will be able to return to Earth is not even a good guess at this point. SpaceX made it through 2017 without blowing anything up but they’ve only just static fired the engines on the F9H years behind schedule and are massively behind and expected to slip more on commercial crew. When would the company have the time to do proper engineering on the BFS and where would the money come from? Another issue with the BFS is the sound pressure level of the rocket at take off. The launch facility would have to be on a huge floating site way the heck off shore to keep from doing a lot of damage. It might even be too loud for the structure and the passengers regardless of where it was launched from. Years ago I built a couple of acoustic test cells to test structural sections of rockets and to evaluate acoustic dampening of different jet engine outer components. They were dangerously loud, but no where near the energy of even the Saturn V which will be a mouse fart in comparison to the BFS.

    Alcohol? Really? I have a hard time believing that people will buy much Martian Everclear at $60k/750ml. Exotic metal alloys don’t seem like a good business venture either. it would have to be some sort of magical semi-conductor that would be used for a quantum computer where the cost is a minor factor. I surmise that in the case of the semi-conductor, the moon would still be a better location. Lots of vacuum and a more frequent shipping schedule. If you need to raise the G, you can put the gear in a centrifuge.

  • Michael Halpern

    Being able to return is a matter of fuel production, which is why they chose methalox, fairly easy to make, I am skeptical on timetable but the engine is mostly ready, one thing about Musk is you have to take timetables with a grain of salt, but he DOES get it done, and no it wouldn’t be “floating” it would be built from the seabed up, this isn’t uncommon in parts of the world like Norway.

    Noise will be deadened by water very quickly.

  • newpapyrus

    My guess is that we’ll have permanent outpost on the lunar surface within the next ten to twenty years and we’ll have colonies on the Moon by mid-century.

    Of course, we still don’t know if low gravity environments on the surfaces of the Moon, Mars, Mercury, and Callisto are relatively deleterious or harmless to human health and reproduction. So finding out such things with simple outpost should be a priority for the human space program, IMO.

    Marcel

  • newpapyrus

    There’s probably a lot of carbon and nitrogen contained within the regolith at the lunar poles. Plus, any colony on the surface of the Moon is going to produce a significant amount of carbon and nitrogenous waste that can be recycled.

    But full blown colonies (millions of people) on the lunar surface are probably going to need to import carbon and nitrogen and maybe even hydrogen in order for the polar regions on the Moon not to be commercially– over exploited.

    Nuclear powered PROFACs grazing on the upper atmosphere of Venus should be an excellent source of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. The CO2 and nitrogen could then be transported by light sails back to cis-lunar space and eventually to the surface of the Moon.

    The export of liquid hydrogen from the surface of Callisto to cis-lunar space might also be economically viable since hydrogen only represents about 11% of the mass of water (H2O) and only about 14% of the mass of rocket fuel (LOX/LH2). The Moon, of course, has a practically unlimited supply of oxygen resources.

    Marcel

  • Jeff2Space

    Agreed. Just have to do something about that pesky atmosphere first. That and lack of hydrogen, which means lack of water. Minor problems for terraformers to deal with. 😉

  • Michael Halpern

    Yeah we need to get to the point where we can import a lot of hydrogen from the outer solar system and provide massive solar shading, on the plus side it does have a lot of easily accessible carbon amongst other things, and that sun shading can also feasibly provide power

  • Michael Halpern

    The thing I don’t get is the insistence on imperial economics for the colonization of Mars or any planetary body, it’s necessary on say the Moon because it lacks several key resources, but that’s not likely to be much more than a satellite outpost/settlement to Earth litterally and figuratively, the advantage of Mars is that it has the resources for a colony there and isn’t significantly different than Earth in available resources though significantly different proportions, but is a good place to get data from Mars and interact with astroid mining equipment from when Earth can’t get the data rate, physical goods from returning spacecraft are value added.