Surface of Mars

Nuclear reactor to support manned Mars missions completes major trial

Image credit: Dreamstime

US researchers have carried out tests on a miniature nuclear power system which could be used to help sustain a team of astronauts and robots in future missions to Mars.

The US space agency is making preparations for a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, having already sent orbiters and rovers to the planet to gather data and determine how the planet’s resources may be exploited to support human life. Nasa faces competition from other agencies and other organisations, including SpaceX, which aims to facilitate the human colonisation of Mars in the near future.

One of the major challenges these organisations face is supporting astronauts for extended periods of time with a reliable, transportable and safe power source capable of supporting a permanent base.

Nasa’s Kilopower project, which was established in 2015, is developing a miniature nuclear fission reactor, which could be used to provide energy for robots or astronauts inhabiting moons and other planets. Researchers working on the project aim to design reactors in a range of sizes which can generate power for 10 years or more.

Such a system could be used to power life support systems, for recharging devices, mining resources, and transforming Martian resources into useful products; for instance, by transforming ice into oxygen and water.

“Mars is a very difficult environment for power systems, with less sunlight than Earth or the Moon, very cold night-time temperatures, very interesting dust storms that can last weeks and months that engulf the entire planet,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of Nasa’s space technology mission directorate.

“So Kilopower’s compact size and robustness allows us to deliver multiple units on a single ladder to the surface that provides tens of kilowatts of power.”

A trial of a Kilopower test reactor began in November at the US Department of Energy’s National Security Site in Nevada. The prototype uses a solid uranium-235 core the size of a roll of kitchen towel, and transfers heat with sodium heat pipes.

At a press conference in Las Vegas this week, Nasa officials announced the successful completion of the compact nuclear system’s trial. Testing on components of the system has gone smoothly, they said, with their models proving accurate. A full-power test for the system is planned for March.

Meanwhile, researchers based at McGill University have demonstrated for the first time a technique to directly identify life on Mars and other bodies using existing technology. The method makes use of miniaturised scientific instruments and microbiology techniques, and was trialled on microorganisms in the Canadian Arctic.

“The search for life is a major focus of planetary exploration, but there hasn’t been direct life detection instrumentation on a mission since the 70s, during the Viking missions to Mars,” said Dr Jacqueline Goordial, an author of the study.

“We wanted to show a proof-of-concept that microbial life can be directly detected and identified using very portable, low-weight and low-energy tools.”

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