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Kilopower: NASA Testing Nuclear Power System For Future Surface Missions

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NASA and the Department of Energy are working together to create a nuclear source of energy that can be used in future missions. The Kilopower's compact size and efficiency in generating power could help provide future human exploration missions.

NASA Media Event For Kilopower

Last Jan. 18, NASA held a media event where the agency discussed its Kilopower project and how it might be useful for future robotic or human space exploration missions. The tests began last November and are expected to continue until March.

When testing began last November, Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) principal technologist Lee Mason stated that the tests will give the agency the confidence that Kilopower is ready to be developed for space flight.

What Is Kilopower?

The Kilopower project is a program by NASA in collaboration with the Department of Energy, which aims to create small nuclear power sources for space exploration. For the project, scientists have created small nuclear fission plants that run on uranium instead of plutonium. Each of these plants could produce 10 kilowatts of electrical power continuously for 10 years or more and may also be combined to create more energy for more power-intensive systems such as housing.

To put that into perspective, the power systems in previous robotic missions provided merely 200 watts of power. If the tests prove successful, Kilopower could produce over 10 times more power than previously used systems.

Applications For Surface Missions

The agency believes that Kilopower has merits in aiding future missions that would require surface exploration perhaps in Mars or on the Moon. This includes powering settlements and mission tasks such as drilling, mining, refrigeration, rover recharging, manufacturing, and communication.

Experts estimate that a human exploration mission would require 40 kilowatts of continuous power, a consumption that a set of Kilopower may potentially provide even during dust storms and regardless of location, as it is not sun dependent.

Is Kilopower Safe?

Naturally, there are questions regarding the safety of using a nuclear power system in space. After all, the same questions are asked regarding power systems here on Earth, so sending such technology to space may be quite tricky. As such, some precautionary measures NASA has drawn up include keeping the device turned off until it has reached the surface of the planet as well as having ample radiation shielding to protect crew members during operations.

"It would have a tremendous impact enabling missions that otherwise aren't attainable," said Mason.

Indeed, with this sun-independent power generator, Kilopower could enable more ambitious space exploration missions that have never been done before.

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