A reactor core that includes highly enriched uranium alloy components produced at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge could power future space exploration, including on the Moon and Mars, federal officials said.
The reactor core fabricated at Y-12 has been delivered to the Nevada National Security Site, where it is being used in a experiment called Kilopower. That’s a new power source that could provide safe, efficient energy for future robotic and human space exploration missions, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. The power source could help provide lighting, water, and oxygen on those missions.
NASA said the pioneering space power system, which would use nuclear fission, could provide up to 10 kilowatts of continuous electrical power for at least 10 years. That’s enough power to run two average households.
Four Kilopower units would provide enough power to establish an outpost, NASA said. The system could enable long-term stays on planetary surfaces.
Testing, which started in November, is being performed through this spring at the National Critical Experiments Research Center in the Device Assembly Facility at the Nevada National Security Site.
“The principal goal of the project is to sufficiently develop and test nuclear power system technologies by 2018 so fission power can be a viable option for NASA decision-makers to consider when making their informed selection of exploration surface systems,” NASA said.
Reuters reported January 18 that initial tests in Nevada had been successful, and a full-power run is scheduled for March. The prototype power system uses a uranium-235 reactor core roughly the size of a paper towel roll, Reuters said.
A key hurdle for any long-term colony on the surface of a planet or moon, as opposed to NASA’s six short lunar surface visits from 1969 to 1972, is having a power source strong enough that it can sustain a base, but small and light enough that it can be shipped through space, Reuters said.
“When astronauts someday venture to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations, one of the first and most important resources they will need is power,” NASA said. “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.”
A directive signed by President Donald Trump in December intended to pave the way for a return to the Moon, with an eye toward an eventual Mars mission, and Mars has been the project’s main focus, Reuters said.
On its website, Y-12 said the experimental power system, NASA’s Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) system, recently achieved criticality in testing at the Nevada National Security Site using the highly enriched uranium alloy components that were produced in Oak Ridge.
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, and the reactor core was provided by Y-12. NASA Glenn shipped the prototype power system from Cleveland to the Nevada National Security Site in late September.
“The team at the NNSS recently began tests on the reactor core,” NASA said. “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 (January). Gibson says the experiments should conclude with a full-power test lasting approximately 28 hours in late March.”
NASA described the advantage of the Kilopower system: “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,” said 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, generating power from sunlight is difficult, and fuel supply is limited. Kilopower is lightweight, reliable, and efficient, which makes it just right for the job, NASA said.
Y-12 said the KRUSTY demonstration is co-funded by NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within DOE. Y-12 is an NNSA site.
The demonstration “is a milestone in the creation of a small, safe, reliable nuclear reactor that NASA is considering for spacecraft power and planetary surface power for long-term missions,” Y-12 said. “This experiment also allows NNSA to obtain valuable benchmark nuclear cross-section data for DOE/NNSA’s Nuclear Criticality Safety Program (NCSP).”
A 2014 agreement with NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, called for Y-12 to support the design of the small nuclear-powered reactor for potential use in future space exploration missions. The reactor’s “proof of concept” testing at NNSS will continue through early 2018, Y-12 said. The Kilopower concept, a kilowatt-range nuclear reactor using an highly enriched uranium-molybdenum metallic fuel core, was a 2013 R&D 100 Award winner.
“Y-12 was to have prototype components ready for testing by the end of 2016,” said Chris Robinson, senior technical consultant for strategic program initiatives. “With the expertise and creative thinking of Y-12 engineers and fabricators, we achieved our deadline, and depleted uranium-molybdenum components were sent to Glenn Research Center for preliminary thermal testing in November 2016. NASA personnel and other team members, including Y-12’s program and project manager (Hollie Longmire and Jim Henkel, respectively), assembled and initiated electrically heated thermal testing of the prototype power system.
“With that milestone, we incorporated applicable test results, fabrication, and project lessons learned, and were able to cast and machine the HEU-Mo components that were delivered to NNSS in September 2017 for testing that resulted in the reactor subassembly (core, reflector, and shielding) achieving criticality, as predicted, November 16,” Robinson said.
With the validation of the reactor subassembly, Los Alamos National Laboratory and NASA engineers/scientists will now integrate the reactor with the power subassembly and proceed toward the full KRUSTY demonstration during the next several months.
The Kilopower project is part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Game Changing Development program, which is managed by NASA’s Langley Research Center.
For more information about the Kilopower project, visit https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/kilopower.
See a Kilopower presentation by NASA here.
See a summary of Kilopower here.
See a Reuters story on the project here.
See an earlier story by NASA, “Powering Up NASA’s Human Reach for the Red Planet,” here.
See Kilopower images here.
See Kilopower fact sheet here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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