Scientists successfully test new nuclear reactor in Nevada
May 6, 2018
LAS VEGAS — Scientists successfully tested a new nuclear reactor in Nevada that could power future trips to outer space.
NASA and the Department of Energy on Wednesday announced the Kilopower fission reactor performed better than expected during a 28-hour, full-power test completed last month inside a vacuum chamber at the Nevada National Security Site, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported .
"Really everything ran perfectly during the test," said Kilopower lead engineer Marc Gibson.
The test marked the end of five months of work on the "space-qualified nuclear reactor" at the site, about 85 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The goal of the project is to develop a safe, compact and reliable source of electricity for future manned and unmanned missions to the moon, Mars and other places beyond the Earth's orbit.
"As we are looking to explore the moon and eventually Mars, we are going to need a large power source not dependent on the sun, especially if we're going to live off the land," said James Reuter, NASA's acting associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.
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The Kilopower prototype, which crews began working on in 2012, is designed to generate up to 3 kilowatts of electricity, but engineers envision a larger version capable producing 10 kW, enough to light 100 100-watt bulbs.
A crew on Mars might use four or five of the larger reactors to run their habitat, charge their vehicles and produce drinkable water and breathable air when dim sunlight or dust storms render solar panels ineffective.
The technology could be scaled up even more to power orbiting space stations, asteroid mining operations or the engines of spacecraft, project officials said.
Kilopower was designed, built and tested for about $20 million, said Dave Poston, chief reactor designer at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
The result is a self-regulating reactor that powers up easily and doesn't need coolant or even a control system.
"We let the physics do the work by making the reactor design simple," Poston said.
The next step for the Kilopower will be to see how the reactor performs in space.
No flight tests have been scheduled yet.