NASA Is Going Nuclear for Mars

NASA wants to put nuclear reactors on Mars.
NASA wants to put nuclear reactors on Mars. Image from NASA
NASA is moving forward with plans to land on Mars by the 2030s, so the agency is also working out how to keep people alive once they actually get there. And thus, for the first time since the 1960s, NASA is zeroing in on nuclear fission.

One idea that is gaining some traction is a set of small nuclear reactors to provide power on the red planet. NASA is preparing to test out the idea. In September, NASA researchers are slated to head out to the Nevada desert, where they will start testing a technology that may lead to astronauts landing on Mars equipped with their own small nuclear reactors someday.

The project, Kilopower, has been in development since 2014, and will see the building of small nuclear fission reactors. The plan is that uranium atoms will be split in these relatively tiny reactors, giving off extreme heat that can then be converted into electricity. The first run will be at the Nevada National Security Site near Las Vegas. Testing is due to start in September and end in January 2018.

The test reactor, which is a little more than six feet tall, will produce up to one kilowatt of electric power. NASA's prediction is that a Mars base would require a supply of just 40 kilowatts – equivalent to the power needs of eight houses on Earth.

This is the first time since 1965 that NASA has gotten into fission reactors. The first venture was under NASA's Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary program (a.k.a. SNAP), which saw the development of two types of nuclear reactors. The first kind, radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs, use heat released from the natural decay of a radioactive substance, like plutonium. This type of generator has been used to power various space probes, including the Curiosity rover currently on Mars, over the years.

But NASA didn't stop there. The SNAP program also gave rise to the development of an atom-splitting nuclear fission reactor, SNAP 10A. It was launched in 1965, the first and only nuclear power plant to be sent into space, where it operated for 43 days before failing. (The craft it was on is still in orbit around Earth now.) That was the end of the nuclear fission program from then until now, at least as far as NASA is concerned.

The Russians had better luck with fission reactors. The Soviet space program developed more than 30 Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellites between 1967 and 1988, followed by the Thermionic Experiment with Conversion in Active Zone (TOPAZ).

So the Russians have been way ahead of us on fission reactors, but not because NASA hasn't been interested. Over the past 50 years, the space agency has backed a number of nuclear power technology efforts, but the programs never got very far because of a mix of political, technical and financial problems.

However, NASA is working to get back on board with nuclear fission. The $15 million project to test the new nuclear fission reactor will mark the first time that NASA has powered up such a reactor that could be used in space since the SNAP program back in the 1960s.

The first tests will be aimed at proving the design for the reactor works. Once all of that is worked out, NASA should be ready to start building full-scale reactors that could actually be used on Mars. That's going to be crucial because once people get to Mars, they'll need a power source to produce everything from air to water to fuel. The plan is currently to send four or five fission reactors on the trip, launched cold and activated only once they have landed on the planet.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray