NASA, working with the Department of Energy (DOE), has developed a small, lightweight nuclear reactor power system that could make long-duration exploration on the moon, Mars, and even farther worlds a reality.
Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology, or KRUSTY, is a fission power system capable of providing up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power for at least a decade. That’s enough to power several homes. NASA says four KRUSTY units would be enough to power an outpost on an alien world.
A KRUSTY system would be particularly useful when setting up an outpost on the moon where solar energy would have limited utility. The moon takes 28.5 Earth days to spin around its axis, meaning that a Lunar night is the equivalent of an Earth fortnight.
“Kilopower gives us the ability to do much higher power missions, and to explore the shadowed craters of the moon,” said Marc Gibson, lead Kilopower engineer at NASA Glenn Research Center, in a press release. “When we start sending astronauts for long stays on the Moon and to other planets, that’s going to require a new class of power that we’ve never needed before.”
Still a prototype, a single KRUSTY unit uses a solid uranium-235 reactor core about the size of a paper towel. The heat from this reactor core is then transferred along heat pipes to Stirling engines, which convert the heat energy to electricity. A recent successful test in Nevada showed that not only can a KRUSTY create electricity, it can do so in a wide variety of environments.
“We threw everything we could at this reactor, in terms of nominal and off-normal operating scenarios, and KRUSTY passed with flying colours,” says David Poston, the DOE’s chief reactor designer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The Nevada test took place in four stages. The first two were conducted sans power to make sure every part was working as expected. Then, during the third phase, the team started to ramp up the uranium core’s heat. The final phase of testing was a 28-hour full-power test to simulate a real-world mission.
Because space is unpredictable, the scientists simulated as many failures as they could think of. These included unexpected power reductions, failed engines, and failed heat pipes. KRUSTY withstood them all with flying colours.
Following the successful test, NASA and DOE researchers will now prepare for more rigorous strains on the reactor. The next step is to think of even more mission simulations and potential failures to work through. It’s a long road before Kilopower has the chance to light up the moon, but the scientists are optimistic.
“We put the system through its paces,” Gibson says. “We understand the reactor very well, and this test proved that the system works the way we designed it to work. No matter what environment we expose it to, the reactor performs very well.”
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics USA