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Power Mars Moon NASA United States

US Tests Nuclear Power System To Sustain Astronauts On Mars (reuters.com) 197

Initial tests in Nevada on a compact nuclear power system designed to sustain a long-duration NASA human mission on the inhospitable surface on Mars have been successful and a full-power run is scheduled for March, officials said on Thursday. Reuters reports: National Aeronautics and Space Administration and U.S. Department of Energy officials, at a Las Vegas news conference, detailed the development of the nuclear fission system under NASA's Kilopower project. Months-long testing began in November at the energy department's Nevada National Security Site, with an eye toward providing energy for future astronaut and robotic missions in space and on the surface of Mars, the moon or other solar system destinations. A key hurdle for any long-term colony on the surface of a planet or moon, as opposed to NASA's six short lunar surface visits from 1969 to 1972, is possessing a power source strong enough to sustain a base but small and light enough to allow for transport through space. NASA's prototype power system uses a uranium-235 reactor core roughly the size of a paper towel roll. The technology could power habitats and life-support systems, enable astronauts to mine resources, recharge rovers and run processing equipment to transform resources such as ice on the planet into oxygen, water and fuel. It could also potentially augment electrically powered spacecraft propulsion systems on missions to the outer planets.
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US Tests Nuclear Power System To Sustain Astronauts On Mars

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  • by Vinegar Joe ( 998110 ) on Friday January 19, 2018 @02:04AM (#55958657)

    I don't understand why they can't use hydro, wind or solar. Does NASA have to subsidize Big Oil and the nuclear industry? Damn you Trump, Damn you! ;)

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      They probably would have solar backup, at least enough to survive. Wouldn't want to rely on one technology or one unit when you are a year away from resupply...

      The solar panels on the rovers had issues with dust, but for a permanent static installation that is solvable.

      • They probably would have solar backup, at least enough to survive. Wouldn't want to rely on one technology or one unit when you are a year away from resupply...

        The solar panels on the rovers had issues with dust, but for a permanent static installation that is solvable.

        I wonder if the new Martians might dust them off?

      • by Ranbot ( 2648297 )

        They probably would have solar backup, at least enough to survive. Wouldn't want to rely on one technology or one unit when you are a year away from resupply...The solar panels on the rovers had issues with dust, but for a permanent static installation that is solvable.

        When a fission reactor cell is the about the size of a paper towel roll as stated by the summary, it's probably be easier to launch few spare cells than all of the extra weight of a redundant back-up solar panel system. Solar is tried, tested, and true in space applications, so the only logical reason to develop an alternative power source for a base is because solar is not feasible. Remember, the main limitation is launch weight/cost, and the energy per pound/cost is the main reason the fission reactor cel

        • The core may be the size of a paper towel roll, but the unit as a whole is much larger and non-serviceable. It also doesn't qualify for your latter criteria. It *could* make a good heating unit for the base, though. The heat output is much higher than its electrical output.
    • The alternatives do exist. I think the main problem is shipping these systems to Mars. For example, in Tamera, Portugal, there is a greenhouse that uses half-permeable mirrors to focus the direct sunlight on tubes filled with (vegetable) oil. This oil is used as a heat buffer and stored in an isolated tank. The oil from the tank is used to cook on, and to run a Striling engine on to produce electricity. The nice thing is that the diffuse light that remains is good for the plants in the greenhouse, while the
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 19, 2018 @02:47AM (#55958765)

    There are more information about the Kilopower project at NASA: https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/kilopower [nasa.gov]

  • I'd be curious to see how they plan on cooling the thing. Yes there's lots of ice at the poles, but is there enough water anywhere else to be useable to cool the thing?

    • Re:Coolant (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ColaMan ( 37550 ) on Friday January 19, 2018 @03:18AM (#55958851) Homepage Journal

      It's not massively powerful, we're talking kilowatts, not megawatts here. Think of the amount of heat that a radiator of a car engine deals with, if that's any help. Possibly might be able to get away with radiators.

      Or that waste heat can be used for habitat heating, or you can just bury some pipes and sink that heat into the ground. Might be handy to melt local subsurface ice with perhaps.

      • Or think about the amount of heat a fridge is radiating from its back.

      • A car radiator is not really radiating much, it needs airflow. That's why it has a fan.

      • by hey! ( 33014 )

        1 KW is about what you'd need to run a popup toaster or a blow dryer. This is, from a NASA engineer's perspective, a huge amount of power, but you couldn't run your neighborhood hair salon on it.

        • 1 KW is about what you'd need to run a popup toaster or a blow dryer. This is, from a NASA engineer's perspective, a huge amount of power, but you couldn't run your neighborhood hair salon on it.

          But on a Base station perspective, it is pretty lean. My Emergency Generator is 3 KW and it runs my place, but I have to be careful about the induction motors in the fridge and freezer. There is also the furnace. If all three kick on at the same time, or just the Fridge and Freezer, it will stall the generator. Only lasts for a second ot two of high current draw, but that's enough. And that is just one energy efficient house., not a base.

          • This is pretty much a solved problem. Modern inverter generators are starting to deal with surge demand by dipping into their starter batteries. Modern inverters can do gen boost much the same by dipping into batteries and/or supercaps. Even back before all this replacing the bare min to not melt the wires caps that most manufacturers use with better starting caps you can get a 13.5k btu roof ac to start on a 2kw gen set.

    • by Cyberax ( 705495 ) on Friday January 19, 2018 @05:06AM (#55959123)
      This reactor is amazing - it's completely passive. It's self-regulated by thermal expansion of its fuel. There are no moving parts (apart from a heat engine), the reactor is started by removing one control rod and then it just runs on until fuel is exhausted.https://hardware.slashdot.org/story/18/01/18/2148243/us-tests-nuclear-power-system-to-sustain-astronauts-on-mars#
      • by hey! ( 33014 )

        You could load it in your bass boat and then circumnavigate the world on your trolling motor -- if it were a small trolling motor.

      • Seems really light on details considering a tested prototype. Didn't see any real details in article or in the NASA pages.

        Would kind of like to know exactly how much power is generated and how long the fuel lasts, how much it weighs. About all it says like the name suggests that it will be in the range of kilowatts, and could possibly be scaled up to hundreds of kilowatts, maybe, or used in multiple reactor configurations. They say it "could" run between 1-10kw and "up to" 10 years. The presentation seems t

        • by Cyberax ( 705495 )
          I've heard about it long time ago. The lifetime of the reactor is at least 10 years and it's mostly limited by moving parts. There's also a possibility to use thermocouples to extend it even further, but this will drastically reduce the power. The amount of nuclear fuel is just several kilograms of highly-enriched uranium, but it's not going to burn completely before the reactor stops for good because of accumulating neutron poisons.
      • by clovis ( 4684 )

        Here's a NASA video that offers some detail on the setup.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

    • >> I'd be curious to see how they plan on cooling the thing.

      The reactor heat is transferred to the stirling engine hot ends via heat pipes. The Stirling engine cold end is connected to a large heat radiator by additional heat pipes.

      For scale, the unit has an adjustable output of 1-10KW. A decent gaming PC consumes about 1 KW. A good hairdryer is 1.5kw. Dumping that amount of heat into the martian atmosphere is not a difficult engineering challenge. For comparison, the two RTGs on the curiosity ro

    • As others have said, this is a tiny reactor where cooling is unlikely to be much of an issue. Even for something larger though, say they wanted a multi-megawatt reactor that could actually power a small colony - the answer is "yes"

      There's massive quantities of water on Mars - the polar ice caps just for starters, but also lots of subsurface ice and potentially even briny liquid. But you don't need to consume water for cooling - that's just what we do here because boiling water and dumping the steam into

  • by mentil ( 1748130 ) on Friday January 19, 2018 @04:11AM (#55958987)

    Turns out Mars has significant amounts of Thorium, particularly near a latitude recently found to have significant amounts of ice. The ice could be melted by and cool a thorium reactor, and electrolyzed to produce rocket fuel. There's plenty of open space on Mars to put a thorium reactor without any NIMBYs nearby worrying about strong gamma emitters or long-lived nuclear waste contaminating the environment. We could drop a few centrifuges on the planet and run them on solar for years, slowly accumulating usable fissile material before the first astronauts touch down. Of course some infrastructure to load them up would be required... but there's almost certainly going to be a need, for one reason or another, for some type of heavy backhoe drone moving soil around anyway (digging out a pit for a sub-surface habitat, getting to ice deposits, flattening landing zones, etc.)
    Of course, by the time NASA gets their ass to Mars, we'll already have fusion reactors.

    • If we can just get enough unobtainium and pixie dust to Mars it will be easy peasy.
    • by necro81 ( 917438 )

      We could drop a few centrifuges on the planet and run them on solar for years, slowly accumulating usable fissile material before the first astronauts touch down. Of course some infrastructure to load them up would be required... but there's almost certainly going to be a need, for one reason or another, for some type of heavy backhoe drone moving soil around anyway

      although for colonization that approach could make sense (bootstrapping your infrastructure from local materials), as a practical matter it's

    • by hey! ( 33014 )

      You'd need significant industrial capability -- which translates into literally tons of mass -- to bootstrap that scenario. Mining equipment is not light.

      It's one of those scenarios that's easy to imagine working once you got it up and running, but is hard to image how to get up and running.

      • by mentil ( 1748130 )

        Right. The mass of a backhoe is almost equal to the GTO capacity of a Falcon Heavy, and ~7x the mass of Curiosity. So, it'd need to be scaled down, or dropped in pieces and reassembled after it lands. Some kind of assembly infrastructure would be required anyways in order to assemble/position the reactor, connect wires etc.
        Not saying it'll be easy, just required for a self-sufficient colony. All this stuff can be built/tested/iterated on Earth, and be beneficial here too. Imagine NASA licensing tech to Cate

    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      There's a lot of things we could do on Mars that'd be experimental, but for the initial trip it will be tested technology and methods which we're fairly sure will work.

      Growing food on Mars? Experiment. Canned food? Will work.
      Gathering water from ice on Mars? Experiment. Bringing water? Will work.
      Producing fuel on Mars? Experiment. Bring fuel? Will work.
      Mining on Mars? Experiment. Bring a self-contained RTG? Will work.

      Of course, by the time NASA gets their ass to Mars, we'll already have fusion reactors.

      I'd flip that around, by the time we have fusion reactors we'll already have a Mars colony.

    • This is an awfully confused post.

      Centrifuges are used for enriching uranium. They have nothing to do with any thorium fuel cycle.

      We can ship nuclear fuel from Earth quite easily. Due to the high energy density, it is not heavy. The idea of mining nuclear fuel on Mars , and processing it and manufacturing the fuel to the necessary quality standards makes not sense at all.

      Thorium seems to have acquired a fandom that imbues it with quasi-magical properties. It is doubly magical if the word "salt" is also used.

  • Where can my neighborhood association go to signup for one of these?

    The first few will be expensive, so we probably want to wait for the second wave when they go into mass production

  • That's what is in a nuclear bomb.
    • That's what is in a nuclear bomb.

      Ok, sure. But a bomb takes a lot more than just that to make it go boom.

      • Like running into Mars?
        • random mechanical impacts not directed correctly to the target cannot cause a nuclear explosion, learning that was one of the toughest tasks of the Manhattan project, the nuclear stuff was pretty much solved, using explosives to set it off was the difficult part (for the plutonium bombs). Just like a power reactor physically cannot be made to undergo a nuclear explosion, it simply isn't possible/
      • by quenda ( 644621 )

        Ok, sure. But a bomb takes a lot more than just that to make it go boom.

        Not much more for a U235 gun-type bomb: just slamming two sub-critical parts together with explosives will do it.
        If you can obtain the highly enriched uranium, the rest is easy.

        The Hiroshima bomb was of this type and they were so confident it was not tested before being used.
        Most nuclear weapons use implosion of a plutonium core, which is far more difficult.

  • The NASA of old was an engineering organization; they would have known to take two of these power units for redundancy. Today's NASA is a pure bureaucracy, and as such, somebody should tell them to take two of these units to Mars.
    • redundancy can be built into a single unit too
      • then you move the SPOF inside the unit (or some desk jockey will increase the power draw)

        with two units if one goes bad you can then yank the running unit off the port and replace it (if you want to get wrench monkey simple)

        • Unless a LOT of shielding is included, unlikely for lightweight space hardware, These reactors will not be user serviceable on site, spent nuclear fuel and humans in close proximity don't get along very well. I'd expect these to be permanently buried when used.
          • even if its swap from Cable 22A to Cable 22B my point still stands redundant should be in separate units.

            Greatest example of Military Intelligence: I give you the M18 Claymore Mine written on the front is the words

            "FRONT TOWARDS ENEMY"

            fun fact the M18 design is also used in 15 other countries including the labeling.

    • I assume you are trolling, but the plan is to send 4 to mars, to provide a base load of 40kW, and presumably some redundancy. See the video at: https://youtu.be/DcdfMcjUy_U [youtu.be]
  • If humans are going to stay on Mars any length of time, they'll have to develop Martian power systems, not depend on hot boxes from Earth. Doesn't matter if it's solar, wind, chemical, or nuclear, Mars will need to generate its own power. Power and water. After that, you're on your own.

  • by thygate ( 1590197 ) on Saturday January 20, 2018 @03:04AM (#55966077)
    here's some :

    A compact, low cost, fission reactor for exploration and science, scalable from 1 kW to 10 kW electric

    Novel integration of available U-235 fuel form, passive sodium heat pipes, and flight-ready Stirling convertors

    Would provide about 10x more power than the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator

    some perspective :

    Power systems used on previous robotic missions (e.g. Spirit/Opportunity, Phoenix, Curiosity) do not provide sufficient power: all less than 200 W

    source (with pictures!) : https://www.nasa.gov/sites/def... [nasa.gov]

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