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NASA Is Getting Ready To Test a Nuclear Reactor for the Moon and Mars

Nov. 15, 2017 (EIRNS)—NASA will be performing, sometime this month, the first ground test of a new nuclear reactor that is designed for space missions, the agency announced on Nov. 13. NASA’s Kilopower program is tasked with creating a small fission reactor that can provide electricity for use onboard a spacecraft, and on "land," on the Moon, and on Mars. NASA’s first space nuclear program, which successfully flew a reactor in the mid-1960s, was cancelled in 1972 when the manned Mars mission was cancelled. But many of the facilities from then are being brought back into this program. The current Kilopower test will be run at the Department of Energy’s Nevada National Security Site (NNSS). In the 1960s, the reactors for the ROVER and NERVA NASA space nuclear programs were tested in facilities at Jackass Flats, which is in the southwest part of what today is the NNSS.

This first test of the new design with a nuclear reactor, rather than a simulation, will be done using a reactor core about the size of a paper towel roll, NASA explains. Inside will be uranium-235 fuel, and a Sterling piston engine will convert the fission heat to electricity. Development is a step-by-step process. This first test is aimed to produce tens of kilowatts of power. The scientists and engineers explain that the new technology could evolve into hundreds of kilowatts, and eventually, megawatts of electricity.

The researchers stress the benefits of a nuclear reactor for deep space exploration, as compared to solar, considering there are two weeks of night on the Moon without Sun, and dust storms on Mars, without very much Sun. Nuclear technology also can provide much higher potential power levels than solar, or the decay of radioisotopes, which are also used today for planetary missions. In a parallel effort, nuclear manufacturer BWXT was awarded a NASA contract in August to carry out design work on a nuclear thermal propulsion concept, with an efficiency double that of chemical rockets.

The 1960s space nuclear programs were cancelled when there was no vision, and no mission that required them. To power tomorrow’s missions—the development of the Moon and the exploration of Mars—nuclear technologies, including fusion, are prerequisite.