In Brief

Nasa trials nuclear reactor to power settlement on Mars

Compact system designed to sustain long-term human colonisation

Scientists have trialled a small nuclear reactor that could be used to sustain life on the uninhabitable surface of Mars, officials announced yesterday.

Nasa and the US Department of Energy have developed the nuclear fission reactor to power manned missions to the red planet or other potentially habitable worlds within the solar system, says Reuters.

Powering a small colony on another planet or moon is a huge challenge, the news site says, as the nuclear reactor’s design must be “strong enough to sustain a base but small and light enough to allow for transport through space”.

Speaking at the reactor’s launch event, Nasa‘s space technology mission directorate chief, Steve Jurczyk, said: “Mars is a very difficult environment for power systems, with less sunlight than Earth or the Moon, very cold nighttime temperatures, [and] very interesting dust storms that can last weeks and months that engulf the entire planet.”

The new reactor’s size and strength allows the agency to “deliver multiple units on a single lander to the surface that provides tens of kilowatts of power”, Jurczyk added.

The power supply is also reliable and uses less fuel than conventional generators, says Space.com. This makes it more efficient than solar power systems, which require consistent sunlight to work. 

The two US government bodies began trialling the reactor late last year, the website says, with harsher tests for a flight-ready power generator due to commence in spring. 

But it may be some time before the nuclear reactor is blasted off to Mars, as Nasa is not planning to send a manned mission to the red planet until the 2030s at the earliest.

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