Department of Energy and National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Nuclear power system shows potential for long-term space missions
National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) brought their talents together to address a unique challenge: developing an electrical power source able to support long-duration crewed missions on the Moon, Mars and destinations beyond.
“The relationship between NNSA and NASA is a ‘win-win’ partnership,” said Patrick Cahalane, NNSA’s Principal Deputy Associate Administrator for Safety, Infrastructure and Operations. “NASA gets a prototype demonstration for a kilowatt-range fission power source, and NNSA gets a benchmark-quality experiment that provides new nuclear data in support of our Nuclear Criticality Safety Program.”
The experiment, called the Kilowatt Reactor Using Stirling Technology (nicknamed KRUSTY), was part of NASA’s larger Kilopower project, an effort to enable long-duration stays on planetary surfaces. KRUSTY was designed to test a prototype fission thermal energy reactor coupled to a Stirling engine powered electric generator. Stirling technology is efficient, doesn’t require significant maintenance, and does not degrade in performance over time.
The KRUSTY team began to develop and test the design at NNSA’s National Criticality Experiments Research Center (NCERC). Working with scientists from NNSA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and Nevada National Security Site, the team designed and performed initial testing of the KRUSTY reactor design using a proof of concept. Experts from NNSA’s Y-12 National Security Complex manufactured the uranium reactor core, which was delivered to the NCERC in the fall of 2017. Efforts culminated in a 28-hour continuous full-power demonstration in March 2018.
This will be recorded in future references as a pivotal point in history where space reactors became a reality for a broad set of NASA missions that couldn’t be done any other way.”
Throughout the experiment, the team simulated power reduction, failed engines and failed heat pipes, showing that the system could continue to operate and successfully handle multiple failures.
The full-power run showed that it is feasible for NASA to use small fission reactors to power long-term missions on the Moon or Mars. The technology could be crucial to establishing a sustainable presence on the Moon by 2028. NASA shared the successful completion of the experiment during a May 2018 press conference at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
Experts from numerous NNSA and NASA offices contributed to the team, as well. Referring to KRUSTY’s successful completion, Lee Mason, NASA’s Principal Technologist for Power and Energy Storage in the Space Technology Mission Directorate, stated, “this will be recorded in future references as a pivotal point in history where space reactors became a reality for a broad set of NASA missions that couldn’t be done any other way.”