Kilowatt nuclear reactor could play role in powering manned missions on Mars

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The terms, “nuclear fission reactors” and “radioisotope thermoelectric generators” may sound like science fiction, but these futuristic space propulsion technologies are more than mere fantasy.

“Power is really the lifeblood exploration,” said Dr. David Poston, Chief Reactor Designer, Los Alamos National Laboratory.

As humans prepare to venture out farther into the final frontier, the name of the game is nuclear fission.

“We had to show NASA that we could do this affordably within a schedule that’s reasonable for them, and that’s the whole basis of this project,” Dr. Poston said.

Dr. Poston is the chief designer of a kilowatt nuclear reactor.  He has a sense of humor with the mission taking a ‘Simpsons’ theme. It’s nicknamed ‘Krusty,’ and it’s most recent successful test at the Nevada National Security site was nicknamed ‘Duff’ like the cartoon town’s favorite beer.

However, Los Alamos Laboratory project lead, Patrick McClure says, the reactor could play a serious role in manned missions on Mars, like powering an outpost.

“Completely throughout the Martian day, completely through a dust storm, you would never have to worry about either the astronauts or anyone, or making fuel, that lack of power that might disrupt things,” McClure said. 

Arrays of small reactors could provide electricity for the buildings for charging rovers or for powering machines that can essentially “create” water, oxygen or fuel to power rockets.

“With a reactor, you could power a unit that would take the CO2 from the Martian atmosphere; it would strip away the carbon and take that oxygen and liquify it and store it until needed,” McClure said.

The reactors are small enough; some the size of a two-liter bottle, to provide power aboard a spacecraft that would explore the cosmos.  And while all of this sounds like science fiction, it’s not. 

It could be in use before you know it.

“I can’t speak for NASA, but there’s talk of a demonstration mission, where if we can get on a rocket, we can have something up in space within a few years,” Dr. Poston said. 

Scientists will be performing another ‘real-world’ test on the kilowatt reactor next week.  The Los Alamos National Lab Scientists say without the Nevada National Security site, none of the testings would have been be possible.

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