Nuclear technology for space exploration just took a giant step forward. Researchers at the National Nuclear Security Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have conducted a series of tests as part of NASA’s Kilopower project for the development of a nuclear space reactor. The results have been published in a special issue of the American Nuclear Society’s journal Nuclear Technology, which includes eight papers that cover the design and testing of the Kilowatt Reactor Using Stirling TechnologY (KRUSTY) reactor, a 1-kWe space reactor with a cast uranium core, heat pipes, and Stirling engine power conversion.
According to lead researcher Patrick McClure, “The Kilopower Project is a NASA project to develop a 1- to 10-kWe space reactor that is adaptable to planetary surface or deep space missions.”
Led by Los Alamos National Laboratory and NASA’s Glenn Research Center, the research demonstrates several key features of the reactor design, including startup, steady-state performance, power conversion load following, fault tolerance, and survival of loss of heat removal. The experiments resulted in the KRUSTY reactor achieving a technology readiness level of 5 on a 9-point scale.
“The goal is to demonstrate the nuclear technology on the moon for potential use in the future on a Mars mission,” McClure said.
But first, the system will need to be scaled up toward the 10-kWe target and flight-qualified for extreme stresses and temperatures.