NASA: Space-bound Nuclear "Kilopower" System Works

NASA and the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced Wednesday that a new nuclear reactor power system capable of providing power for crews or unmanned stations on the Moon, Mars and beyond had been successfully demonstrated.

NASA's Kilowpower unitIn so many words, it works, the two agencies said.

NASA announced the results of the demonstration, called the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) experiment, during a news conference Wednesday at its Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. The Kilopower experiment was conducted at the NNSA's Nevada National Security Site from November 2017 through March.

Officials touted the system's most basic attributes. It is “safe, efficient and (provides) plentiful energy,” said NASA acting associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) in Washington Jim Reuter.

Reuter said the system “will be the key to future robotic and human exploration.”

I expect the Kilopower project to be an essential part of lunar and Mars power architectures as they evolve” he said in a statement.

The kilopower system is a small, lightweight fission power system capable of providing up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power - enough to run several average households - continuously for at least 10 years. Four Kilopower units would provide enough power to establish an outpost.

The prototype power system uses a solid, cast uranium-235 reactor core, about the size of a paper towel roll. Passive sodium heat pipes transfer reactor heat to high-efficiency Stirling engines, which convert the heat to electricity.

Lead Kilopower engineer at Glenn, Marc Gibson, noted that he power system is ideal for the Moon, where solar power is difficult because lunar nights are equivalent to 14 days on Earth.

"Kilopower gives us the ability to do much higher power missions, and to explore the shadowed craters of the Moon," said Gibson. "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."

According to David Poston, the chief reactor designer at NNSA's Los Alamos National Laboratory, engineers “threw everything we could at this reactor, in terms of nominal and off-normal operating scenarios,” in order to ascertain how safe it would be under adverse conditions. “KRUSTY passed with flying colors," said Poston.

The Kilopower team conducted the experiment in four phases. The first two phases, conducted without power, confirmed that each component of the system behaved as expected. During the third phase, the team increased power to heat the core incrementally before moving on to the final phase. The experiment culminated with a 28-hour, full-power test that simulated a mission, including reactor startup, ramp to full power, steady operation and shutdown.

Throughout the experiment, the team simulated power reduction, failed engines and failed heat pipes, showing that the system could continue to operate and successfully handle multiple failures.

The Kilopower project is developing mission concepts and performing additional risk reduction activities to prepare for a possible future flight demonstration. The project will remain a part of the STMD's Game Changing Development program with the goal of transitioning to the Technology Demonstration Mission program in Fiscal Year 2020.

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