The recent advances in human spaceflight come with a renewed interest in colonizing Mars or the Moon. There are, however, a significant number of challenges in establishing a self-sustaining human colony on the Red Planet. First and foremost, human life cannot sustain indefinitely without access to a renewable source of food, water, oxygen, and power, among other things. Fortunately, we may be close to a solution for generating power in space. The key is a lightweight nuclear reactor.

A team of scientists and engineers is building nuclear reactors that could one day power a colony on Mars or the Moon. Constructing a nuclear power plant on the Moon comes with its own unique challenges.

Powering a colony on Mars with lightweight nuclear reactors

Scientists at NASA will need to develop a simplified, scaled-down version of a nuclear reactor. This lightweight nuclear reactor would need the ability to withstand the harsh conditions in space to fuel a large spacecraft to a distant star, or power a colony on Mars or the Moon, or operating a mining operation on an asteroid.

“I hate to call it an innovation because it’s not that complicated,” David Poston, a nuclear engineer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told Chemical & Engineering News. “But it’s an innovation that we said, ‘Why don’t we just do it the simple way that we know is going to work?’”

According to scientists, four nuclear reactors would generate enough power for a six-person crew to live on Mars. We are now hoping to use this newly developed reactor on the Moon as a testing ground.

“On the moon, you’re close to home,” NASA engineer Michelle Rucker told C&EN, “so if something fails, it’s a fairly close trip to get back home, whereas on Mars, your system better be working.”

A brief history of power reactors in space

Back in the 1960s, scientists thought of fission reactors as a solution to generating power on Mars. In 1965, the United States launched a small nuclear fission-powered satellite named SNAP-10A, however due to electrical issues it failed only 43 days after launch. SNAP-10A is still in orbit, floating as another piece of space junk.

Over the next two decades, the Soviet Union launched 31 nuclear fission-powered satellites. The development of nuclear fission reactors stalled later on due to increasing design problems and budget cuts.

In the early 2010s, researchers at the NASA Glenn Research Center and the US Department of Energy began working on a joint project called Kilopower, now renamed the Nuclear Fission Power Project. The goal of this unique project is to develop a new nuclear fission power generator for space that would produce 10 kW of electrical energy.

The future of power reactors in space is now on the hands of not just technical success but also funding. But once achieved, it would be the greatest achievement in the history of mankind.


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