When we imagine sending humans long-term to live on the surface of Mars, the moon, or other planetary bodies in the not-so-distant future, one of the primary questions is: How will we provide the colonists with power?
Introducing Kilopower; a small nuclear reactor that is being designed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in conjunction with NASA, that it hopes will one day be the answer to that fair question. A test reactor has been constructed and it is designed to produce up to 1 kilowatt of electric power and is about 6.5 feet tall.
The prototype of Kilopower uses a solid, cast uranium-235 reactor core, about the size of a paper towel roll. The reactor heat is transferred via passive sodium heat pipes, with the heat being converted to electricity by Stirling engines. Kilopower can produce so much energy from just a little fuel, which is a crucial requirement for keeping astronaut baggage allowances down. Just 0.45 kilograms of uranium can produce as much energy as 1.36 million kilograms of burnable coal.
The current plan, according to Pat McClure, Kilopower project leader at LANL, is to use the 1-kilowatt version of Kilopower for deep space missions or missions to other planets. The 10-kilowatt version will be used for either deep space missions or missions to Mars’s surface. For the latter, NASA would send five Kilopower reactors.
According to Popular Science, NASA is in talks with commercial groups to see if any would be interested in using Kilopower reactors for their own space exploration projects. While no companies were named, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Lockheed Martin quickly come to mind.
In the meantime, learn more about Kilopower by watching the video below.