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Small nuclear reactors could one day power Martian colony

Kilopower — a small nuclear reactor designed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in conjunction with researchers at NASA — could one day help power a colony on Mars.

Though many agencies dream of sending astronauts to far-off places, it is going to be difficult to power colonies on other planets. Creating enough energy to make a habitable environment on a hostile world is never going to be easy, and fuel is simply too heavy to bring back to Earth.

To fix that, astronauts need a light power source that can make liquid oxygen and propellant. Kilopower allows that by using a sealed tube to circulate fluid around a reactor that carries heat to an engine. Once there, that energy pressurizes gas and drives a piston linked to a motor that generates electricity. By using both devices together, the machine creates electrical power that can easily be adapted for different space applications.

Kilopower reactors come in many forms that range from 1 kilowatt to 10 kilowatts. In order to effectively run a habitat on Mars, astronomers need about 40 kilowatts. That means NASA would send four or five reactors to the planet when it came time to colonize, Space.com reports.

The devices run on nuclear power, which is both lightweight and reliable. Other energy sources would not work for this task because they are too heavy or do not operate well across all different seasons. Nuclear energy works regardless of the weather or time of day.

Astronomers began testing Kilopower late last year at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), and will run a test of a flight-like reactor core at full operating temperature this spring. The experiment is being conducted in collaboration with NASA’s Glenn Research Center, the Marshall Space Flight Center, and the Y-12 National Security Complex, along with NASA contractors SunPower and Advanced Cooling Technologies.

Researchers hope this advancement will lead to new technology and space exploration down the line.

“As a former astronaut I can assure you that having reliable power sources is critical when venturing away from low Earth orbit,” said Janet Kavandi, director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center, according to Popular Science. “And this type of power system will be especially important as we travel deeper into the solar system, and eventually to the surface of other worlds.”

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