Nasa trials nuclear reactor to power settlement on Mars

NASA NASA  Reuters

NASA NASA Reuters

"Mars isn't a very hospitable place", Mason said. Fission power could expand the possible landing sites on Mars to include the high northern latitudes, where ice may be present.

NASA is pushing forward on testing a key energy source that could literally "empower" human crews on the inhospitable surface of Mars.

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. It could power habitats and rovers, or entire grids to allow for mining operations, or it could break down frozen water into hydrogen for fuel and oxygen for breathing.

The power system would be launched into space and assembled in orbit before touching down someplace like Mars.

On Jan. 17, NASA announced the beginning of reactor core tests on a miniaturized fusion reactor.

NASA is now testing a compact nuclear fission reactor capable of providing future Mars missions with enough energy.

While getting to Mars will burn a ton of fuel, creating a habitat on the planet will also take a lot of energy. It uses now available technology, with a uranium-235 reactor core that is about the width of a paper towel roll and about 5-6 feet tall.

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Looking for a way to supplement radioisotope power systems that use naturally decaying plutonium-238, NASA officials discussed the Nuclear Systems Kilopower Project today at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.

The sealed tube in the heat pipe circulates a fluid around the reactor, picking up the heat and carrying it to the Stirling engine. NASA is one step closer to a solution for a power system that could help future space missions meet that need. For the latter, NASA would send five Kilopower reactors.

This pioneering space fission power system could provide up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power - enough to run two average households - continuously for at least ten years.

Work began on the prototype after a successful "proof-of-concept test" in 2012, also at the security site in Nevada.

When astronauts someday venture to the Moon, Mars and other destinations, one of the first and most important resources they will need is power. This makes it more efficient than solar power systems, which require consistent sunlight to work. But relying on solar generators, as in the film, would be risky because Martian dust storms can blot out the sun for weeks or months.

This time around, engineers focused on building something small, dependable and relatively cheap using existing technology and readily available nuclear fuel.

In 2012, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and NASA Glenn Research Center in OH demonstrated how a small fission reactor could provide electrical power, creating the basis for the $20 million Kilopower project, which launched in 2015.

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