NASA is testing tiny nuclear reactors that can sustain life on Mars.
At an official facility in Nevada, the US government is currently testing a prototype miniature nuclear reactor that should one day, hopefully, be used to fuel colonists living on the planet Mars.
The project, a joint venture between NASA and the US Department of Energy, is intended to solve one of the biggest problems facing a permanent base on the Red Planet, besides simply getting there (which will likely be solved soon). The problem: Mars is a tricky place for energy generation.
The planet’s distance from the sun means that it gets less natural light than the Earth does, and as such, solar power will be a lot less reliable – which also won’t be helped by the enormous dust clouds that the planet generates, which also make wind energy impractical. Astronauts won’t even be able to burn fossil fuels because, whatever certain conspiracy theorists might claim, there aren’t any known fossils on Mars.
Nuclear power, then, is the logical choice for powering a Martian colony, but this also comes with an inherent challenge. Current energy reactors are big, bulky, and very heavy. For a solid fuel source for space travel, we need an energy system that is lightweight enough to be able to escape Earth’s gravity without too much effort.
Thus, the government is working on their mini nuclear reactor, as part of what they’ve entitled the “Kilopower” project. The specific prototype, which is named KRUSTY (hopefully a Simpsons reference, not a description of the quality of the device), contains a small rod of uranium-235 which generates around 10 kilowatts of power.
This is a far cry from the 50 or so kilowatts that a Mars mission will actually need, but there’s time for the prototype to grow in strength as technology develops over the coming years. There’s also the possibility to launching multiple KRUSTY units into space so that they can work together to power a human colony.
Initial tests on KRUSTY are expected to continue for several months. When Kilopower is finished, NASA hopes to be able to use the technology on missions to the moon and other parts of the solar system as well as Mars.
In the meantime, the US Department of Energy, which is taking a break from running PR damage control following their negative portrayal on Stranger Things to work on the project, likely also hopes to put this technology to use in more terrestrial settings.
As for where a mini nuclear reactor might end up in everyday life, who knows? Perhaps the future of public transport is nuclear-powered busses? If so, be careful bumping into one with your car – the premiums following a radiation leak will probably be enormous.