"The gap that exists for Mars and our desire to send humans there is that the power requirements are so much greater than what we've flown with robotic systems", he said. Four Kilopower units would provide enough power to establish an outpost.
According to U.S. officials, a full-power test will be performed in March under the NASA Kilopower project.
When we imagine sending humans to live on Mars, the moon or other planetary bodies in the not-so-distant future, a primary question is: How will we power their colony? The results derived from the tests suggest that the nuclear fission based project could be an efficient and safe technique that provides a significant amount of energy in regards to potential future missions in space.
'Mars is a very hard environment for power systems, with less sunlight than Earth or the moon, very cold nighttime temperatures, very interesting dust storms that can last weeks and months that engulf the entire planet, ' said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate.
Originally, the complete power test for the Kilopower project was planned earlier which was shifted to the latter half of March in order to accumulate more information for the sustainability of the project.
Currently, long-term space missions, such as the Curiosity rover or the Viking landers on Mars, are powered using radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which produce a couple of hundred watts of power, a fraction of what Kilopower can. The prototype power system was designed and developed by NASA's Glenn Research Center in collaboration with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
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Power is one of the most crucial resources that astronauts would require if they go on a space mission to the Moon, Mars or beyond. The idea has been around since the 1950's, with several attempts to develop a power system.
NASA's prototype power system uses a uranium-235 reactor core roughly the size of a paper towel roll. Passive sodium heat pipes are used to transfer heat in the reactor.
'We want a power source that can handle extreme environments, ' says Lee Mason, NASA's principal technologist for power and energy storage. The system is being tested in the Nevada desert, where initial tests have proven successful. The engines use heat to create pressure forces that move a piston, which is coupled to an alternator to produce electricity, similar to how a vehicle engine works. The team at the NNSS recently began tests on the reactor core.
Around 10 kilowatts of electrical power can be provided by this space fission power system.
Mason said there are a number of possible applications for the technology beyond a manned mission to Mars.
President Donald Trump in December signed a directive meant to pave the way for a return to the moon, with an eye toward an eventual Mars mission.