Today, scientists dream of building one day settlements on the moon and even on Mars, where research could be conducted and where human travelers could live safely for months or years. Making this dream a reality will require a lot of work and one of the most pressing concerns is that of energy.
The Department of Energy and NASA believe that nuclear energy could be the solution, and that a prototype fission reactor has already shown promise in tests here on Earth. Now, as reported Space.com the DOE thinks it could have a flying version of the reactor ready to run from 2022, which is much sooner than NASA will be ready to send humans to the moon, let alone Mars
"I think we could do it in three years and be ready to fly," said Patrick McClure, project manager Kilopower during a presentation in July. "I think three years is a very feasible deadline."
Generating energy from a fission reaction in space is a bit like returning to Earth, or at least the Ministry of Energy believes it. All you need is the ability to capture the heat resulting from the splitting of atoms and convert it into electrical energy using a motor. You lose a lot in conversion - in fact, during the first tests, the Kilopower reactor had only demonstrated an efficiency of 30% - but it is still more efficient than the nuclear power sources used in many machines of the NASA, including its Mars rovers.
Kilopower technology will be built with an estimated lifetime of 15 years, providing at least one kilowatt of electrical power that can be used for whatever is needed. A handful of these reactors would be needed to provide enough energy for long-term missions in other worlds, but it is possible that these special reactors play a major role in future missions to Mars and beyond.