“Kilopower is ingenious in its design,” James Reuter, acting associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said at the conference. “The aim is to solve key technological challenges that will enable more ambitious human science missions in the future.”
This was the first time a new nuclear reactor of any sort had been tested in the US for 40 years, let alone one designed for space. So the fact the test was a success will be pretty welcome news for people dreaming of ideas for future missions.
Kilopower, in theory, opens up a lot of doors. Some deep space missions already use a source of nuclear fuel, radioisotope thermonuclear generators (RTGs), which rely on the decay of plutonium-238. But they are limited to a maximum power of about 1 kilowatt.
“We start where the RTG stops,” Gibson noted in the conference. “One kilowatt is our lowest level, and you can go up to megawatts of power.”
Another benefit of Kilopower over RTGs is that the latter constantly run, and cannot be turned off once the process begins. The former, however, could be started at any time during a mission, and its power output is completely scalable too.
It was noted that as the reactor isn’t turned on until it reaches space, Kilopower also has an added layer of safety prior to launch, allaying some nuclear-related concerns.
“If there was a 15-year mission to the Kuiper Belt, we don’t have to start the reactor up until we get there,” added Gibson.
With the completion of this test, the team said they no longer had any need for further ground demonstrations. Now they’re seeking approval to actually test the Kilopower system in space, something that will be looked at over the next 18 months.
With NASA continually looking to broaden its horizons, be it the Moon or Mars, a source of power like this is pretty desirable. It’s fairly cheap, easy, and provides more juice than other sources like solar power. If we want to conduct prolonged stays on other worlds, we may well need something like Kilopower to make that a reality.