If humans have any hope of sticking around on Mars for longer than a few days, they will need some form of power to sustain themselves. A successful test in Nevada has demonstrated that that power could be nuclear.
The Kilopower concept (Image: NASA)
NASA and the US Department of Energy successfully performed their initial tests on a miniature nuclear power system, and will try a more developed test in March. Reuters reports:
Months-long testing began in November at the energy department's Nevada National Security Site, with an eye toward providing energy for future astronaut and robotic missions in space and on the surface of Mars, the moon or other solar system destinations.
You may remember that human astronauts walked on the moon only a handful of times back in the 1960s and 1970s, and never for longer than three consecutive days. Longer missions planned for Mars, such as the one depicted in Andy Weir's The Martian, would require a power system - one that can handle the planet's frigid nights, dust storms and a more distant Sun.
Those are the problems NASA's Kilopower project hopes to solve with a compact nuclear fission reactor that uses a uranium-235 reactor core "roughly the size of a paper towel roll," reports Reuters. The reactor would provide 10 kilowatts of power, "enough to run two average households... continuously for at least ten years," according to a NASA release. Four units would be required to operate an outpost, it continues.
A mockup of Martian base with nuclear reactors (Image: NASA)
You may have heard about President Trump's plan for NASA to set its sights to sending humans back to the Moon. A miniature fission reactor could work on other extreme environments, including the Moon, said Lee Mason, NASA principal technologist for power and energy storage for power and energy storage, in a release.
NASA doesn't have precise dates for Kilopower's full test aside from mid-to-late March. But there's more work to go. "[A successful test] would be operation at full power with conditions that match our analytical predictions," Mason told Gizmodo in an email. "If we continue the project toward a flight system, further hardware development and testing would be needed."