Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY): Research into Advanced Energy Sources for Future Space Missions

The Kilopower project was responsible for developing and testing the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY). The project was tasked to advance the technologies needed to produce power in remote, harsh environments such as those found in space. This article provides an overview of the project.

Objectives and Applications

The primary objective of the KRUSTY experiment was to provide a reliable and efficient energy source for future space missions. Currently, spacecraft rely on solar power or radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) for their energy needs. However, solar power is not efficient in deep space or on planets with thin atmospheres like Mars. On the other hand, RTGs, while reliable, offer limited power output.

The Kilopower reactor, however, could potentially resolve these issues. It is designed to operate independently of sunlight, making it ideal for deep space missions or for locations on a planet that receive limited sunlight. Furthermore, it is capable of providing significantly more power than an RTG, making it suitable for more demanding tasks.

Experimental Success

In March 2018, the KRUSTY experiment successfully demonstrated that the Kilopower reactor could produce electricity in a space-like environment. The team was able to start the reactor, bring it to full power, sustain a steady state operation, and then successfully shut it down.

KRUSTY was the first nuclear-powered operation of a new fission reactor concept in the US in over 40 years.

The reactor concept was designed, fabricated and tested for less than $20 million.

Next Steps: Fission Surface Power Project

NASA’s fission surface power project expands on the efforts of the Kilopower project, which ended in 2018. Currently, NASA is working with the Department of Energy (DOE) and industry to design a fission power system that would provide at least 40 kilowatts of power – enough to continuously run 30 households for ten years. A future lunar demonstration will pave the way for sustainable operations and even base camps on the Moon and Mars.

NASA and DOE selected three design concept proposals in June 2022 for a fission surface power system design that could be ready to launch by the end of the decade for a demonstration on the Moon. This technology would benefit future exploration under the Artemis umbrella.

Future Implications

NASA’s successful demonstration of the KRUSTY experiment is a significant milestone in the pursuit of nuclear power for space exploration. The Kilopower project could provide the energy required for future astronauts to carry out mission objectives, like mining resources, charging rovers, and turning water into rocket fuel or breathable air. The success of KRUSTY brings us a step closer to extended human presence on the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

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