By Irene Klotz, Space.com Contributor, Original Story on Space.com Here
An artist’s impression of a nuclear power system, consisting of four separate fission reactors, for Mars habitats.
As NASA makes plans to one day send humans to Mars, one of the key technical gaps the agency is working to fill is how to provide enough power on the Red Planet’s surface for fuel production, habitats and other equipment. One option: small nuclear fission reactors, which work by splitting uranium atoms to generate heat, which is then converted into electric power.
NASA’s technology development branch has been funding a project called Kilopower for three years, with the aim of demonstrating the system at the Nevada National Security Site near Las Vegas. Testing is due to start in September and end in January 2018.
The last time NASA tested a fission reactor was during the 1960s’ Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power, or SNAP, program, which developed two types of nuclear power systems. The first system — radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs — taps heat released from the natural decay of a radioactive element, such as plutonium. RTGs have powered dozens of space probes over the years, including the Curiosity rover currently exploring Mars. [Nuclear Generators Power NASA Deep Space Probes (Infographic)]
The second technology developed under SNAP was an atom-splitting fission reactor. SNAP-10A was the first — and so far, only — U.S. nuclear power plant to operate in space. Launched on April 3, 1965, SNAP-10A operated for 43 days, producing 500 watts of electrical power, before an unrelated equipment failure ended the demonstration. The spacecraft remains in Earth orbit.
Russia has been far more active developing and flying spacecraft powered by small fission reactors, including 30 Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellites, or RORSAT, which flew between 1967 and 1988, and higher-powered TOPAZ systems. TOPAZ is an acronym for Thermionic Experiment with Conversion in Active Zone.
A photograph of the SNAP-8 generator from the Lewis Research Center, part of NASA’s Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power (SNAP) program. Here, engineers exposed the system to shocks and vibrations expected to occur during a launch into space and subsequent maneuvering.
Nuclear power revival