Nuclear power for energy has been one of the most interesting technological advancements in the history of mankind. While public opinion is shrouded in misinformation, with many people looking to Fukushima as a reason to stay away from nuclear power, scientists and researchers at NASA know the true power and potential of the energy source. In fact, most of NASA’s greatest work would not have been possible without nuclear power on their side. Now, scientists and high-ranking officials at NASA are turning to nuclear power once again in order to approach deep-space missions. NASA Is now focused entirely on something known as the Kilopower Project.
NASA has most recently been using something called RTGs in order to power their various spacecraft: Voyager 1 and 2 as well as the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments. The RTG, which stands for radioisotope thermoelectric generators, converts heart from dying plutonium into usable energy packed as electricity. With zero moving parts, the RTG system is perfect for space exploration because it limits the number of potential breakdowns that could sideline important and expensive research. The biggest problem with this otherwise essential system is that it simply isn’t efficient enough. NASA wants something that is more effective, more efficient, and more capable of the kind of deep-space exploration that humanity has always dreamed of.
Unfortunately, the development of a real space reactor has been largely inconclusive at this point. The USA first flew up the SNAP-10 in 1965, the initial space reactor, but since the early ’00s, there has been just about zero fungible progress — as pointed out by Dave Poston at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. In order to appropriately develop a nuclear space reactor, there needs to be a renewed focus on extensive research and money on hand. Steve Jurczyk of NASA’s own Space Technology Mission Directorate says, “Costs ran up from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars.”
Now, we are looking at the Kilopwer Reactor which is allegedly both inexpensive and simple in function. NASA officials are excited about the Kilopower because it leans on science that is already established, utilizing active nuclear fission like a traditional reactor. The hope here is that the Kilopower will be able to harvest more energy in a far more efficient manner than their RTG units. With so much going on at NASA in recent years, there is renewed hope that this could be the answer to our deep-space targets.