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NASA’s new toy – a nuclear reactor on Mars

IF astronauts do succeed in the long trek to Mars, will they by then have enough intelligence left to actually operate the nuclear reactor, given that scientists have found that space travel damages astronauts’ brains?
What is NASA’s plan if the rocket taking the plutonium -fulled reactor crashes on an Earth city?
NASA, DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY TESTING ‘KILOPOWER’ SPACE NUCLEAR REACTOR, Space Flight Insider COLLIN SKOCIK, 26 Nov 17    In preparing for possible missions to the Red Planet in the near future, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) has been given the go-ahead to test a small nuclear reactor that could one day run equipment on the Martian surface.

The Kilopower project is working to advance a design for a compact, low-cost, and scalable nuclear fission power system for missions that require lots of power, such as a human mission to Mars. The technology uses a fission reactor with a uranium-235 reactor core to generate heat, which is then transferred via passive sodium heat pipes to Stirling engines. Those engines use that heat to create pressure, which moves a piston – much as old coal-powered ships used steam pressure to run their pistons. When coupled to an alternator, the Stirling engine produces electricity.

“What we are striving to do is give space missions an option beyond RTGs [radioisotope thermoelectric generators], which generally provide a couple hundred watts or so,” Lee Mason, STMD’s principal technologist for Power and Energy Storage at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in a NASA news release. “The big difference between all the great things we’ve done on Mars, and what we would need to do for a human mission to that planet, is power.”

Mason said the new technology could provide kilowatts of power and even be upgraded to provide hundreds of kilowatts or even megawatts of power.

“We call it the Kilopower project because it gives us a near-term option to provide kilowatts for missions that previously were constrained to use less,” Mason said. “But first things first, and our test program is the way to get started.”


The next step for Kilopower project hardware is to be subjected to a full-power test for some 28 hours.

“The upcoming Nevada testing will answer a lot of technical questions to prove out the feasibility of this technology, with the goal of moving it to a Technology Readiness Level of 5,” said lead researcher Marc Gibson, “It’s a breadboard test in a vacuum environment, operating the equipment at the relevant conditions.”

Mason acknowledges the contributions of the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration’s infrastructure, as well as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The hardware for the Kilopower project was designed at built at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, developed the test plan and will operate the tests. The reactor core comes from the Y12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee……..

November 27, 2017 - Posted by | technology, USA


  1. RE: What is NASA’s plan if the rocket taking the plutonium -fulled reactor crashes on an Earth city?

    First of all “Kilopower” is not fueled with U235, not plutonium. You really should read about it before writing about it.

    Secondly it is well known that rockets can fail, and no one knows that better than NASA. Therefore NASA has designed Kilopower so that the nuclear fuel capsule will remain intact after any launch failure or any unplanned reentry into earth’s atmosphere. Furthermore the Kilopower reactor is NOT turned on until after the spacecraft is safely on its way to wherever. That means that the U235 contains no fission products and is therefore almost non-radioactive should it “fall out of the sky”.

    Third, Kilopower does not look like this:
    Kilopower actually looks something like this:

    Finally, I dare you to leave this dissenting reply up and visible on your website.

    Comment by Jeffrey Arno | November 2, 2018 | Reply

    • Well,, the article does not make it clear whether or not NASA uses plutonium. To quote that article:
      Previous NASA missions – including the landmark Apollo Moon landings of the 1960s and 1970s – have used RTGs. The Viking Mars landers, the Curiosity rover, the Voyager spacecraft, the New Horizons probe to Pluto, and the Cassini mission to Saturn all used plutonium-run batteries that drew their power from the natural decay of their radioisotope heat source.

      For your information – in case you didn’t realise this – the graphics on this site are often not intended to be exact depictions of technical stuff.

      Comment by Christina MacPherson | November 2, 2018 | Reply

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