NASA Testing Nuclear Power for Moon, Mars Base
Three successful NASA tests push forward the option for using nuclear power for life support, performing experiments, recharging rovers and mining resources on future manned missions.
NASA and the Department of Energy are encouraged by recent testing that could enable possible use of
nuclear power on the surface of the moon or Mars. According to NASA, a fission surface power system
could use a small nuclear reactor to produce 40 kilowatts of energy,
enough electricity to power a future space outpost.
The electricity produced could be used for life support, performing experiments, recharging rovers and mining resources. NASA stresses the use of nuclear power is but one of a range of options being considered for future manned missions.
Testing is being conducted at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, the Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., and Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.
At Glen, a lightweight composite radiator panel was successfully tested in a vacuum chamber that replicates the hard vacuum and extreme cold temperatures that would be seen in space. The radiator represents one of 20 panels that would be needed to cool the notional fission surface power system.
The test showed the radiator panel could reject the required heat at the proper temperature under realistic lunar conditions. "This was a tremendous accomplishment and a giant step toward proving out the radiator technology. We can now proceed toward a system-level technology demonstration with confidence," Glenn lead engineer David Ellis said in a statement.
In testing at the Marshall Space Flight Center, scientists for the first time heated Stirling engines with a pumped liquid metal, replicating how heat could be delivered from a reactor to the converter and at Sandia, a Stirling alternator was operated while being exposed to radiation levels similar to those that would be experienced with a reactor. The alternator survived a cumulative radiation dose 20 times the current fission surface power surface design requirements.
"The pace of progress exhibited by these three achievements in the same time period is exciting," said Lee Mason, Glenn's principal investigator for the fission surface power project. "It has built the team's confidence and prepared them for challenges that lay ahead."
The next major step is a non-nuclear system level technology demonstration where all of the major elements will be combined in one test. This test is scheduled to begin in 2012.