NASA’s Kilopower Reactor could power missions to Mars

The demonstration of Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology could pave the way for future systems that could power human outposts on the Moon and Mars.

May 3, 2018 16:21 IST
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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) on May 2, 2018 jointly demonstrated that the Kilopower portable nuclear fission reactor could enable crewed missions to the Moon, Mars and destinations beyond.

The Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) experiment was conducted at the NNSA’s Nevada National Security Site from November 2017 through March 2018. The team successfully established that the system can create electricity with fission power.

Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY)

• Kilopower Reactor is a small, lightweight fission power system which is capable of providing up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power continuously for at least 10 years.

• Ten kilowatts of electrical power is enough to run several average households, while 4 Kilopower units can provide enough power to establish a station.

• This prototype power system uses a solid uranium-235 reactor core, which is about the size of a paper towel roll.

• Passive sodium heat pipes transfer the reactor heat to high-efficiency Stirling engines, which then convert the heat into electricity.

• Kilopower Reactor will be ideal for the Moon, where power generation from sunlight is difficult as lunar nights are equivalent to 14 days on Earth.

How the experiment was conducted?

• The Kilopower team conducted the experiment in four phases.

• The first two phases of experiment were conducted without power, confirming that each component of the system behaved as expected.

• In the third phase, the team increased the power to heat the core, before moving on to the final phase.

• The whole experiment culminated with a 28-hour test encompassing reactor startup, ramp to full power, steady operation and shutdown.

• Throughout the experiment, the team simulated failed engines and failed heat pipes, showing that the system continues to operate and handle multiple failures.


The demonstration of Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology could pave the way for future systems that could power human outposts on the Moon and Mars, including missions that rely on In-situ Resource Utilizationto produce local propellants and other materials.

Who manages the project?

• The Kilopower Reactor project is a part of the Game Changing Development program of Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) that aims to shift to the Technology Demonstration Mission program in 2020.

• The project is led by Glenn Research Centre, in partnership with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama and NNSA, including its Los Alamos National Laboratory, Nevada National Security Site and Y-12 National Security Complex.


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