LAS VEGAS - Humans are one step closer to living on Mars, thanks to work being done in a Nevada desert. Thursday morning, scientists from NASA and its partners provided an update on experiments they're conducting involving a space reactor.
It's a technology that could make it possible for people to live and thrive in hostile environments, including the moon and Mars. Space reactors are not new. The U.S. launched one back in the 1960's, and Russia has tried to develop several.
Atomic power was also harnessed in Nevada to power a rocket that could carry humans to the stars. But, for this new program, what's being called the Kilopower Reactor, NASA and its partners went back to the basics. They wanted something small, safe, and simple, and the tests done so far indicate they're on the right track.
"Whether that's to the icy moons of Jupiter or Saturn or something like Encephalus or Titan. Or to actually provide power on Mars," Patrick McClure, a Los Alamos nuclear scientist said.
When McClure first told the I-Team about the vast potential of a simple, but revolutionary reactor; one that sort of looks like a high tech fireplug, they wondered if he might be getting ahead of himself, but 15 months later, he was back in Las Vegas. However, this time he was joined by colleagues from NASA and other partners, and they're all on the same page.
"I think we are at a breaking point and have the capability now to allow crews to survive and flourish in planetary surfaces, and Kilopower is that technology," said Lee Mason, NASA Technologist.
Kilopower is the name of a compact fission reactor capable of generating up to ten kilowatts of electricity, which is enough to allow humans to survive on the stark surface of the moon. It could power habitats and rovers, or entire grids to allow for mining operations, or it could break down frozen water into hydrogen for fuel and oxygen for breathing.
In the hit movie, "The Martian," stranded astronaut Matt Damon scrounged around and made use of whatever technology he could find to stay alive. But relying on solar generators, as in the film, would be risky because Martian dust storms can blot out the sun for weeks or months.
The Kilopower generator, nicknamed Krusty, after the clown in tv's "The Simpsons," was delivered to a classified facility inside the Nevada National Security site back in September. It has already passed its first test, nicknamed Duff, which is another name from "The Simpsons," but it's a reference that isn't entirely inappropriate.
Unlike many NASA projects, Krusty has a small budget, and relies on existing technology and a fuel source already produced. Using the Nevada facility also saved money, and Nevada personnel are among the most experienced in the world when it comes to nuclear tech.
"I'm a believer that we will be a two-planet species one day," said Steve Jurczyk, NASA Space Technology.
Jurczyk thinks that demonstrating the technology makes it more likely that plans already drawn up for missions to the moon and Mars will get the green light, sooner rather than later.
"Those architectures require systems. In-space transportation systems, landing systems as well as surface systems, so we have to get there, we have to land there, and we have to live there and come back," said Jurczyk. "In order, to enable those systems, we need to develop technologies like Kilopower. Without it, human exploration would not be safe or affordable."
The team plans to conduct a full power test of the reactor by the end of March. It's being done at a highly secure facility known as the D.A.F. The I-Team will let you know how that turns out.
For more information on the Kilopower system go here.
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