According to recent reports, NASA has decided to pursue nuclear reactor development on Mars once more after abandoning the project nearly 50 years ago.
This news may not come as a surprise to some, as it had already been announced that NASA was looking to send a human to Mars in the near future. That being the case, it would seem only logical that the next step would be figuring out how to guarantee some sort of energy supply for whatever contingent of the human race ends up inhabiting the planet.
The answer to this potential energy dilemma may come in the form of nuclear fission reactors, small reactors that split uranium atoms to generate heat and subsequently, electric power.
During the 1960s, NASA tested a fission reactor as part of the Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power program, or SNAP. These tests developed two types of nuclear power systems, both of which are still powering space probes and other reactors in space to this day. SNAP-10A, the first—and only—nuclear power plant to operate in space under U.S. control generated some 500 watts of electrical power before experiencing equipment failure that has left it orbiting in space to this day.
Though nuclear power development has been on NASA’s agenda for more than half a century now, various issues stemming from financial and political conditions However, the agency’s “Game Changing Development” backed a goal of building and testing a small reactor by fall of 2017.
If the tests are successful, this could mean that NASA could have a guaranteed method of powering an archetype of a space station designed for Mars’ red clay surface. However, until that point, it remains to be seen as to whether or not energy options such as nuclear power—or even solar power, for that matter—could be viable to support life in space.
Lead photo courtesy of Billy Brown, CC BY 2.0
Natalie Wickstrom is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia. She probably wrote this piece to the tune of a movie score whilst chewing gum.