Nasa to send astronauts to Mars with mini nuclear reactors
American space agency aims to provide power to sustain life on the red planet by developing miniature nuclear plants
// Since it announced in 2010 that it planned to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, Nasa has been wrestling with many logistic challenges – physical and technical – that stand in the way of their galactic goals.
Prime among the gaps in the plans has been the question of how settlements on the red planet would be powered once the not insignificant question of getting them there in the first place had been resolved.
It appears however that the American space agency has discovered potential solution to the question: it will conduct tests in September in the Nevada desert of a technology that it hopes will one day lead to the creation of miniature nuclear reactors that will accompany man’s mission to Mars.
The project, which is called Kilopower and which has been in development since 2014, will see the building of small nuclear fission reactors. Uranium atoms will be split in these, giving off extreme heat which can then be converted into electricity.
The test reactor, which is nearly 2-metres tall, will produce up to 1 kilowatt of electric power. Nasa’s prediction is that a Mars base would require a supply of just 40 kilowatts – equivalent to the power needs of eight houses on Earth.
“This is really the first time [since the 1960s] that Nasa has seriously developed a reactor for space applications,” Lee Mason, principal investigator for the project at Nasa’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio, said.
The technology used then lead to the creation of the SNAP-10A reactor, which was launched in April 1965 and operated for 43 days before failing. The craft it was on remains in orbit around the Earth.
The Russian space program made greater use of nuclear materials, developing more that 30 Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellites between 1967 and 1988.
Missions to Mars, our closest planetary companion in the Solar System, will be complicated by the need to build powered environments in which astronauts can live and work. The power required to provide light, heat, air and water will not be able to be produced by solar energy as the planet receives only a their of the sunlight that the Earth does.
If initial tests over the next six months are successful, then Nasa will seek to build a higher spec version of the reactor that will attempt to better replicate conditions on Mars.
Updated: July 3, 2017 04:17 AM