In the coming years, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will send two robotic missions to explore Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. These are none other than NASA’s Europa Clipper and the ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE), which will launch in 2024, and 2023 (respectively). Once they arrive by the 2030s, they will study Europa’s surface with a series of flybys to determine if its interior ocean could support life. These will be the first astrobiology missions to an icy moon in the outer Solar System, collectively known as “Ocean Worlds.”
One of the many challenges for these missions is how to mine through the thick icy crusts and obtain samples from the interior ocean for analysis. According to a proposal by Dr. Theresa Benyo (a physicist and the principal investigator of the lattice confinement fusion project at NASA’s Glenn Research Center), a possible solution is to use a special reactor that relies on fission and fusion reactions. This proposal was selected for Phase I development by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which includes a $12,500 grant.
With the help of international and commercial partners, NASA is sending astronauts back to the Moon for the first time in over fifty years. In addition to sending crewed missions to the lunar surface, the long-term objective of the Artemis Program is to create the necessary infrastructure for a program of “sustained lunar exploration and development.” But unlike the Apollo missions that sent astronauts to the equatorial region of the Moon, the Artemis Program will send astronauts to the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin, culminating in the creation of a habitat (the Artemis Basecamp).
This region contains many permanently-shadowed craters and experiences a night cycle that lasts fourteen days (a “Lunar Night“). Since solar energy will be limited in these conditions, the Artemis astronauts, spacecraft, rovers, and other surface elements will require additional power sources that can operate in cratered regions and during the long lunar nights. Looking for potential solutions, the Ohio Aerospace Institute (OAI) and the NASA Glenn Research Center recently hosted two space nuclear technologies workshops designed to foster solutions for long-duration missions away from Earth.
Over the next fifteen years, multiple space agencies and their commercial partners intend to mount crewed missions to the Moon and Mars. In addition to placing “footprints and flags” on these celestial bodies, there are plans to establish the infrastructure to allow for a long-term human presence. To meet these mission requirements and ensure astronaut safety, several technologies are currently being researched and developed.
At their core, these technologies are all about achieving self-sufficiency in terms of resources, materials, and energy. To ensure that these missions have all the energy they need to conduct operations, NASA is developing a Fission Surface Power (FSP) system that will provide a safe, efficient, and reliable electricity supply. In conjunction with solar cells, batteries, and fuel cells, this technology will allow for long-term missions to the Moon and Mars in the near future.
Looking to the future of crewed space exploration, it is clear to NASA and other space agencies that certain technological requirements need to be met. Not only are a new generation of launch vehicles and space capsules needed (like the SLS and Orion spacecraft), but new forms of energy production are needed to ensure that long-duration missions to the Moon, Mars, and other locations in the Solar System can take place.
One possibility that addresses these concerns is Kilopower, a lightweight fission power system that could power robotic missions, bases and exploration missions. In collaboration with the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), NASA recently conducted a successful demonstration of a new nuclear reactor power system that could enable long-duration crewed missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
Known as the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) experiment, the technology was unveiled at a recent news conference on Wednesday, May 2nd, at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. According to NASA, this power system is capable of generating up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power – enough power several households continuously for ten years, or an outpost on the Moon or Mars.
As Jim Reuter, NASA’s acting associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), explained in a recent NASA press release:
“Safe, efficient and plentiful energy will be the key to future robotic and human exploration. I expect the Kilopower project to be an essential part of lunar and Mars power architectures as they evolve.”
The prototype power system employs a small solid uranium-235 reactor core and passive sodium heat pipes to transfer reactor heat to high-efficiency Stirling engines, which convert the heat to electricity. This power system is ideally suited to locations like the Moon, where power generation using solar arrays is difficult because lunar nights are equivalent to 14 days on Earth.
In addition, many plans for lunar exploration involve building outposts in the permanently-shaded polar regions or in stable underground lava tubes. On Mars, sunshine is more plentiful, but subject to the planet’s diurnal cycle and weather (such as dust storms). This technology could therefore ensure a steady supply of power that is not dependent on intermittent sources like sunlight. As Marc Gibson, the lead Kilopower engineer at Glenn, said:
“Kilopower gives us the ability to do much higher power missions, and to explore the shadowed craters of the Moon. When we start sending astronauts for long stays on the Moon and to other planets, that’s going to require a new class of power that we’ve never needed before.”
The Kilopower experiment was conducted at the NNSA’s Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) between November and March of 2017. In addition to demonstrating that the system could produce electricity through fission, the purpose of the experiment was also to show that it is stable and safe in any environment. For this reason, the Kilopower team conduct in the experiment in four phases.
The first two phases, which were conducted without power, confirmed that each component in the system functioned properly. For the third phase, the team increased power to heat the core slowly before moving on to phase four, which consisted of a 28-hour, full-power test run. This phase simulated all stages of a mission, which included a reactor startup, ramp up to full power, steady operation and shutdown.
Throughout the experiment, the team simulated various system failures to ensure that the system would keep working – which included power reductions, failed engines and failed heat pipe. Throughout, the KRUSTY generator kept on providing electricity, proving that it can endure whatever space exploration throws at it. As Gibson indicated:
“We put the system through its paces. We understand the reactor very well, and this test proved that the system works the way we designed it to work. No matter what environment we expose it to, the reactor performs very well.”
Looking ahead, the Kilopower project will remain a part of NASA’s Game Changing Development (GCD) program. As part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), this program’s goal is to advance space technologies that may lead to entirely new approaches for the Agency’s future space missions. Eventually, the team hopes to make the transition to the Technology Demonstration Mission (TDM) program by 2020.
If all goes well, the KRUSTY reactor could allow for permanent human outposts on the Moon and Mars. It could also offer support to missions that rely on In-situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) to produce hydrazine fuel from local sources of water ice, and building materials from local regolith.
Basically, when robotic missions are mounted to the Moon to 3D print bases out of local regolith, and astronauts begin making regular trips to the Moon to conduct research and experiments (like they do today to the International Space Station), it could be KRUSTY reactors that provide them will all their power needs. In a few decades, the same could be true for Mars and even locations in the outer Solar System.