NASA has successfully tested a prototype of a nuclear reactor power system that would significantly help astronauts survive extensive missions to Mars and hopefully to the Moon.

The demonstration was conducted together with the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration.

The nuclear fission prototype is called the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology or KRUSTY.

Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology

Although nuclear in nature, KRUSTY is actually small, lightweight fission power system. It is made up of solid, cast uranium-235 reactor core close to a size of a paper towel roll.

Nevertheless, the system could provide up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power. It could run several households continuously for a minimum of 10 years. A four kilopower units would be sufficient to support an outpost.

Marc Gibson, the lead kilopower engineer for the project, said that the power system, which is the first of its kind, will be ideal for future missions on the Moon. Potential operations on the Moon would be challenging because nights are equivalent to 14 days on Earth. It means that there would not be adequate solar power to be generated.

"When we start sending astronauts for long stays on the Moon and to other planets, that's going to require a new class of power that we've never needed before," says Gibson.

What Is Next For KRUSTY

Experiments on kilopower have been ongoing since November 2017 until March. At the helm of the project was NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, and the NNSA with its Los Alamos National Laboratory, Nevada National Security Site and Y-12 National Security Complex.

The team has conducted experiments in four phases: simulating how the system would react with reduced power, failed engines, failed heat pipes, and an actual mission scenario.

KRUSTY was able to survive in all given situations and proved that it can continue to operate despite multiple malfunctions. Specifically, KRUSTY demonstrated that it can create electricity with fission power and it remains safe and stable amid environmental changes it undergoes.

Jim Reuter, NASA's acting associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate, says that KRUSTY's display of safety and energy efficiency only proved that the system will be integral to future robotic and human exploration to space.

After the successful prototype demonstration, the team behind KRUSTY is preparing for a possible future flight test.

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