Kilopower—Pioneering space fission power system could provide up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power

January 22, 2018, NASA
Credit: NASA

When astronauts someday venture to the moon, Mars and other destinations, one of the first and most important resources they will need is power. A reliable and efficient power system will be essential for day-to-day necessities, such as lighting, water and oxygen, and for mission objectives, like running experiments and producing fuel for the long journey home.

That's why NASA is conducting experiments on Kilopower, a new source that could provide safe, efficient and plentiful energy for future robotic and missions.

This pioneering space fission power system could provide up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power—enough to run two average households—continuously for at least ten years. Four Kilopower units would provide enough power to establish an outpost.

About the Experiment

The prototype power system was designed and developed by NASA's Glenn Research Center in collaboration with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, while the was provided by the Y12 National Security Complex. NASA Glenn shipped the prototype power system from Cleveland to the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) in late September.

The team at the NNSS recently began tests on the reactor core. According to NASA Glenn's Marc Gibson, the Kilopower lead engineer, the team will connect the power system to the core and begin end-to-end checkouts this month. Gibson says the experiments should conclude with a full-power test lasting approximately 28 hours in late March.

Credit: NASA
The Kilopower advantage

Fission power can provide abundant energy anywhere we want humans or robots to go. On Mars, the sun's power varies widely throughout the seasons, and periodic dust storms can last for months. On the moon, the cold lunar night lingers for 14 days.

"We want a power source that can handle extreme environments," says Lee Mason, NASA's principal technologist for power and energy storage. "Kilopower opens up the full surface of Mars, including the northern latitudes where water may reside. On the moon, Kilopower could be deployed to help search for resources in permanently shadowed craters."

In these challenging environments, power generation from sunlight is difficult and fuel supply is limited. Kilopower is lightweight, reliable and efficient, which makes it just right for the job.

Explore further: Important Tests for Lunar Habitat Power System Began

More information: For more information about the Kilopower project, visit www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/kilopower

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javjav
5 / 5 (1) Jan 22, 2018
Still too heavy for the power output that it provides. This reactor was supposed to also work for ion engines, but now they do not even mention this application. Its own NASA X3 ion engine would need ten of this reactors to work at just 100KW, which sounds totally impractical due to the reactors weight. NASA needs to think way bigger. But at least it is a step in the right direction. Or maybe is that they want to start with very small uranium packets so it does not sound dangerous to the public for the first flights, then scale it. That sounds smart
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) Jan 22, 2018
Well, at least on the Moon solar and batteries seem to be a pretty reliable powersource. At the very least there's no weather factor to worry about.
JRi
not rated yet Jan 22, 2018
Words "uranium" and "nuclear" were peculiarly absent in this article. Not that I would be against nuclear power but just an observation. I guess public is too scared of them.
Nik_2213
5 / 5 (1) Jan 22, 2018
"at least on the Moon solar and batteries seem to be a pretty reliable power source"

For half the time ? Plus mass of storage system to last a fortnight plus margin for degradation ??
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Jan 22, 2018
Still too heavy for the power output that it provides. This reactor was supposed to also work for ion engines, but now they do not even mention this application. Its own NASA X3 ion engine would need ten of this reactors to work at just 100KW, which sounds totally impractical due to the reactors weight. NASA needs to think way bigger. But at least it is a step in the right direction. Or maybe is that they want to start with very small uranium packets so it does not sound dangerous to the public for the first flights, then scale it. That sounds smart

Or if they could just design it to be assembled in space...
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Jan 22, 2018
I guess public is too scared of them.
One can just wonder what would happen if this nuclear reactor would crash at 100 km altitude like Challenger space shuttle...

I'd actually like to see that study...
Eikka
not rated yet Jan 23, 2018
I guess public is too scared of them.
One can just wonder what would happen if this nuclear reactor would crash at 100 km altitude like Challenger space shuttle...

I'd actually like to see that study...


It'd come down more or less in one piece. The Challenger fell apart because it was a large, mostly empty object with lots of surface area to tear apart like a paper bag in a hurricane, whereas the reactor core is a small heavy lump that has a relatively low air drag relative to its mass. It'll keep flying like a cannonball, glow hot on re-entry, and then plunge into the sea.
javjav
5 / 5 (1) Jan 23, 2018
if the reactor is not started until it is in orbit, the Kilopower fuel (a few Kg of enriched Uranium 235) it is not really dangerous in case of explosion. Probably it will fell in one piece, but even if it is not the case the radioactivity will be very low for public health concerns. A different thing is if the reactor is in use and it breaks in the atmosphere or falling into the sea. But even in that case the danger would be about 1000 times smaller than a nuclear ice-breaker disaster or nuclear submarine (not counting its war heads), To put thins into perspective we are talking about tens of Kilowatts, compared to the tens of Megawatt reactors in those ships. The risk sounds perfectly acceptable, the only problem is that no politician wants to explain this to the public opinion
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Jan 23, 2018
..., To put thins into perspective we are talking about tens of Kilowatts, compared to the tens of Megawatt reactors in those ships. The risk sounds perfectly acceptable, the only problem is that no politician wants to explain this to the public opinion

Because they'd have to out shout the chicken littles who won't listen, anyway...
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jan 23, 2018
Or if they could just design it to be assembled in space...
Power to weight is the problem

"Zubrin wrote in SpaceNews: "To achieve his much-repeated claim that VASIMR could enable a 39-day one-way transit to Mars, Chang Diaz posits a nuclear reactor system with a power of 200,000 kilowatts and a power-to-mass ratio of 1,000 watts per kilogram. In fact, the largest space nuclear reactor ever built, the Soviet[-era] Topaz, had a power of 10 kilowatts and a power-to-mass ratio of 10 watts per kilogram. There is thus no basis whatsoever for believing in the feasibility of Chang Diaz's fantasy power system."
Probably it will fell in one piece
We can design container systems to survive falls from great heights. Consider that we already have 1000s of reactors and weapons in motion on land and under the sea.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jan 23, 2018
Plus

"As of 2010, more than 30 small fission power system nuclear reactors have been sent into space in the Soviet RORSAT satellites, with only one—SNAP-10A—by the US. In addition, over 40 radioisotope thermoelectric generators have been used globally (principally US and USSR) on space missions."

-Much safer when we will be doing it.
javjav
not rated yet Jan 23, 2018
I agree power to weight ratio is the problem, but not because of the engine. VASIMIR has potential to offer a good ratio (also Nasa X3 engine) . The real problem for a Megawatt engine is the reactor and the waste heat. First thing it will be critical to develop efficient thermoelectric generators, otherwise the heaviest part of the spaceship will be the - football field size - radiators (both for the reactor and for the VASIMIR waste heat). Converting waste heat into useful power can make a huge difference. Secondly, they would need to transfer military technology to NASA. Compact reactors in nuclear submarines are approaching the 100 Megawatt benchmark, they are 50 years ahead of civil technology on this matter. But submarines and boats use a sea of water to solve the waste heat problem, so the Navy is not going to solve this part.
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (2) Jan 23, 2018
I do not have any problem if these experimental nuclear powered systems were built, assembled and activated by robots or waldoes, in orbit around or on the Moon.

This gambling with the only habitable planet available is what I find morally unconscionable.

For all the chatter about 'Public Opinion'? It is evident that all the commentators expect the 'Public' to shut up, express no dissenting opinions to the 'Wisdom' of risking the Earth. And most important of all? Keep the money flowing, cause feeding your ego's is way more important than the 'Public' wasting their earnings on food and housing.

However, consider this scenario. Any of your fabulously expensive projects failing within the Earth's Mesosphere?

What level of damage is acceptable? How many casualties will you disregard?

That 'Public' will be demanding a public accounting of your failures.

Tour refusal to involve the public in the decision making process will come back to bite your sorry ass.
javjav
not rated yet Jan 23, 2018
It is evident that all the commentators expect the 'Public' to shut up,
No, What we want is that the "public" is given objective information so they can form an informed "opinion", not like yours. You are a perfect example of the problem. You think Nuclear = We are going to die. Wrong. Just read about the use of nuclear radiation in medicine ....
What level of damage is acceptable?
In this case no risk of nuclear disaster, which is feasible by not starting the reactor until it surpass earth escape velocity. Uranium is not dangerous in itself, you can hold it in your hands. Read about it.
Your refusal to involve the public in the decision making ...
It is the opposite. I want the people well informed so they can participate in the decision making. It is when they ignore a subject when they are not taken into account and easily manipulated
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jan 24, 2018
apart because it was a large, mostly empty object with lots of surface area to tear apart like a paper bag in a hurricane, whereas the reactor core is a small heavy lump
Obviously, criyical reactor components would be engineered and tested extensively to survive reentry, with both passive and active systems like shielding and chutes.
is evident that all the commentators expect the 'Public' to shut up
By 'public' you mean activists and fear mongers encouraged by clickbait media. Insurance companies have the most to lose and would demand the safest possible systems.

Make no mistake: reactors in space are absolutely essential for travel and colonization, and until we are able to mine and refine fissiles out there they will be coming from the surface of this planet.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jan 24, 2018
I want the people well informed so they can participate in the decision making
Of course you do. Because unscrupulous politicians and clickbait media vultures tell you so.

There are necessary decisions that the public is not qualified to make. You should try to understand what that means. One way or another they will be made whether you approve of them or not.

It's the feeling of a lack of control that vultures use to manipulate you, not the relative dangers you face.

This is obvious given that a few hundred reactors were built worldwide before fear mongers decided to capitalize on them.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jan 24, 2018
The real problem for a Megawatt engine is the reactor and the waste heat
Before you post ideas you should Google them and post your sources.

"Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter which was mission for Prometheus. It was powered by a small fission reactor, which provided electrical power to ion engines and electronics. The long boom is used to create distance between the reactor and the rest of the space craft, on it are fins that radiate waste heat into space"

-Lots of info on radiator design. The problem is weight/mass/inertia, not waste heat.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jan 24, 2018
In this case no risk of nuclear disaster, which is feasible by not starting the reactor until it surpass earth escape velocity. Uranium is not dangerous in itself, you can hold it in your hands.

Well, sorta. The uranium used in fission reactors is enriched, and you wouldn't want to hold that in your hand.

I guess the hurdle to take would be: how to get enriched uranium safely beyond orbit - i.e. how to minimize the danger of the rocket exploding and distributing this stuff in the stratosphere or fail in orbit and distribute it during reentry/burnup...both of which would be a disaster greater than any Chernobyl-type event.

Of course one could send unenriched uranium on many flights beyond orbit and enrich it at the destination. While this would be exceedingly expensive (needing enriching facilities on site in addition to many flight) it would be reasonably safe. Any one accident would only release a minute amount of radioactive uranium isotope.
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (1) Jan 24, 2018
What a_p said. It is the risk of 'dusting' the Earth's atmosphere with radioactive debris when an accident shatters and the pieces burn and dissolve on reentry.

As for the fear of alien invasion? Whooie! Somebody's hitting those comicbooks, hard!

By the very definition of the word 'intelligence'. Any alien insane enough to want to invade this Planet of the Crazy Apes? Is obviously too stupid to develop a method to get here.

So many of you grouse about how slowly the effort to colonize the spatial frontier. And how your need for greed is so unappreciated. Hey, we've all been there. We all continue to suffer through the disastrous consequences of imperialism.

Here you go. The opportunity for you to get off your lazy butts and actually kickstart a crowdsourced space program of your own design and goals.

I promise not to call the MIB on you, if you actually produced, anything but whinging!
javjav
not rated yet Jan 24, 2018
The uranium used in fission reactors is enriched, and you wouldn't want to hold that in your hand.

Yes you can. Still you should use clean latex gloves, not because enriched Uranium is dangerous but because as it is expensive, and you want to avoid contaminating it. The only difference between "enriched" or not is the percentage of U-235 isotope which is the one that can sustain a chain reaction. But U-235 is not more radioactive than U-238 and the other uranium isotopes. If not using gloves just wash your hands later, as it is not good to inhale or ingest uranium dust inadvertently (still not lethal, but similar issues as inhaling lead metal).
The real problem are the by-products after burning it in a fission reactor, those are the ones highly radioactive. Launching enriched uranium before starting the reactor is not radioactive and it is not dangerous. Regarding toxicity, other rocket fuels like hydrazine are much more toxic.
javjav
not rated yet Jan 24, 2018
-The problem is weight/mass/inertia, not waste heat.

Waste heat is what creates the need for extra weight/mass/inertia. Please read the complete post before answering... Ad-Astra own estimations are that a 100KW VASIMIR engine would require a "football field size" radiator (in their own words), and the lack of good thermoelectric alternative is their main concern. Regarding the reactor, developing an efficient thermoelectrical device would be also better than using a turbine or mechanical pistons, it should not only reduce the mass but also the moving parts, making it more reliable for long missions.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jan 25, 2018
Waste heat is what creates the need for extra weight/mass/inertia
??? Waste heat is the inevitable result whenever work is done. It is the effect not the cause.
football field size" radiator (in their own words), and the lack of good thermoelectric alternative is their main concern
You need to do a little work and post links or quotes so people can rebut your proclamations. Like my zubrin quote above. You've got to refute what HE says, not me.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jan 25, 2018
I suppose I could cite you...
Still too heavy for the power output that it provides. This reactor was supposed to also work for ion engines, but now they do not even mention this application. Its own NASA X3 ion engine would need ten of this reactors to work at just 100KW, which sounds totally impractical due to the reactors weight
... but you're not really reliable because 1) you're anonymous and 2) you contradict yourself.
javjav
not rated yet Jan 25, 2018
You want links. Fair enough. Read Zubrin quote in this article, in the Mars in 49 days section:

https://en.m.wiki...a_Rocket

"Avoiding the need for "football-field sized radiators" (Zubrin quote) for a "200,000 kilowatt (200 megawatt) reactor with a power-to-mass density of 1,000 watts per kilogram" (Díaz quote)[46][47] this reactor would require efficient waste heat capturing technology"
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jan 25, 2018
Ad Astra response

"In the near term, using solar-electric power at levels of 100 kW to 1 MW, VASIMR propulsion could transfer heavy payloads to Mars using only one to four first-generation thrusters in relatively simple engine architectures.[...] It is abundantly clear that the nuclear reactor technology required for such missions [fast manned Mars transport] is not available today and major advances in reactor design and power conversion are needed."

— Ad Astra Rocket Company, Facts About the VASIMR Engine and its Development

- which no doubt means increases in usable energy capture and conversion efficiency, thereby reducing waste heat output instead of trying to capture it.

And anything past mars must use nukes.
javjav
not rated yet Jan 25, 2018
- which no doubt means increases in usable energy capture and conversion efficiency, thereby reducing waste heat output instead of trying to capture it.[ \q] I never said "capturing", I said "converting". Now we are saying the same thing, but your problem is that you want to interpret my words differently because you are more interested in having a discussion than a conversation. For that reason, I am out.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jan 25, 2018
No, ad astra and I are talking about converting primary reactor heat to usable energy more efficiently and completely while you are talking about converting waste heat to usable energy.

It's like increasing horsepower of an engine by improving the design vs trying to recover heat from the exhaust with an exchanger. Obviously the former is preferable.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jan 25, 2018
For instance

"In a three-year project completed recently for the U.S. Department of Energy, Hejzlar and Kazimi teamed up with Westinghouse and other companies to look at how to make a fuel for one kind of reactor, the pressurized water reactor (PWR), 30 percent more efficient while maintaining or improving safety margins.

"They changed the shape of the fuel from solid cylinders to hollow tubes. This added surface area that allows water to flow inside and outside the pellets, increasing heat transfer.

"The new fuel turned out even better than Hejzlar dared hope. It proved to be easy to manufacture and capable of boosting the power output of PWR plants by 50 percent."
Well, sorta. The uranium used in fission reactors is enriched, and you wouldn't want to hold that in your hand
More mythology;
https://en.wikipe...iumC.jpg

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