Kilopower project is geared for reaching a number of milestones over the next few months.
Credit: NASA

NASA is pushing forward on testing a key energy source that literally “empowers” human crews on the near-by Moon and distant Mars, energizing habitats and running on-the-spot processing equipment to transform local resources into oxygen, water, and fuel.

The space agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) has provided multi-year funding for the Kilopower project. This work is viewed as a stepping stone to small fission-powered planetary science missions.

Safe, efficient and plentiful energy

NASA and its partners on the Kilopower work hosted a news conference today, held at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. They discussed 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.

NASA Kilopower project is viewed as a stepping stone to small fission-powered planetary science missions.
Credit: NASA

That 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.

Kilopower project testing began in November 2017 and is expected to continue through March,

Confidence builder

The Kilopower test program will give us confidence that this technology is ready for space flight development. We’ll be checking analytical models along the way for verification of how well the hardware is working,” explains Lee Mason, STMD’s Principal Technologist for Power and Energy Storage at NASA Headquarters.

There has been strong leveraging of DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration infrastructure and expertise, Mason points out, as well as tapping the talents of Los Alamos National Laboratory technologists in New Mexico. NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio built the test unit. The Y12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee is providing the reactor core.

Multiple near-term missions

“A space nuclear reactor could provide a high energy density power source with the ability to operate independent of solar proximity or orientation and the ability to operate in extremely hostile environments, such as the Martian surface,” notes Patrick McClure, Project Lead on the KiloPower work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

Credit: LANL/NASA

“The reactor technology we are testing is applicable to multiple near-term missions, and we ultimately hope that this is the first step for fission reactors to create a new paradigm of truly ambitious and inspiring space exploration,” adds David Poston, LANL’s Chief Reactor Designer. “Simplicity is essential to any first-of-a-kind engineering project – not necessarily the simplest design, but finding the simplest path through design, development, fabrication, safety, and testing.”

Achievable objective

Moving the power source from ground-testing into a space system is an achievable objective, Mason says. “The upcoming Nevada testing will answer a lot of technical questions to prove out the feasibility of this technology, moving it to a Technical Readiness Level of 5. It’s a breadboard test in a vacuum environment, operating the equipment at the right conditions,” he advises.

Looking into the future, Mason suggests that the technology would be ideal for furthering lunar exploration objectives too. “The technology doesn’t care. Moon and or Mars, this power source is agnostic to those environments.”

Credit: LANL/NASA

Lunar campaign

“A moon mission for Kilopower would be ideal,” Mason told Inside Outer Space. “It has the potential to power lander payloads through the lunar night, and possibly for months or years. The power level would be suitable to access, extract, and process lunar ice in permanently shadowed craters and demonstrate propellant production. NASA could also co-develop the system with commercial lunar lander companies that supply power to mining ventures or small settlements,” he envisions.

A successful lunar campaign, Mason said, “would give us confidence for later Mars missions in which humans would depend on Kilopower to make their return propellant and power their habitats.”

Listen-in

To give an ear to today’s review of the Kilopower project held at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada – power up your phone fingers and dial:

1-800-944-3498

Also, go to this Los Alamos National Lab’s video at:

https://youtu.be/bdMzFQOABcQ

Leave a Reply