If Elon Musk’s vision of a Martian colony is ever going to come to fruition, we’re going to need a way to generate power in space — and a lot of it. Unfortunately, none of our Earthly utility companies are working on expanding their services to the great unknown. But NASA has a solution that could power the cosmic outposts of the future.
The space agency’s umbrella-shaped Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology — or KRUSTY for short — could provide enough juice to power several houses for up to ten years. Four of these reactors working in unison could be enough to light up a lunar outpost, according to NASA. KRUSTY is the successor of the Demonstration Using Flattop Fissions (DUFF) reactor, so it’s safe to say that NASA has a Simpsons obsession and the internet is equally as excited about that as it is about the prospects of a neighborhood on Mars.
While it might look like these reactors will soak up the sun’s energy to create electricity, they’ll actually be using nuclear fission. KRUSTY’s core is made of solid uranium-235 the size of a paper towel roll. The heat generated by the core is transferred to the reactor’s Stirling engines, which then convert the heat into electricity.
Nuclear energy has a bad rap because of the lethal radiation it can emit if something were to go terribly wrong. However, it is by far the most efficient and long-lasting source of energy to provide the electricity needed to sustain human life in space. Solar energy is enough to power probs and satellites, but insufficient for an inhabited facility. And shipping fossil fuels to space would be far too heavy and create pollution.
KRUSTY underwent a 28-hour test that pushed it to its very limits. It even withstood the simulations of worst-case scenarios like failing engines and failing heat pipes.
“We put the system through its paces,” KRUSTY’s lead engineer, Marc Gibson, says in a statement. “We understand the reactor very well, and this test proved that the system works the way we designed it to work. No matter what environment we expose it to, the reactor performs very well.”
While KRUSTY has proven its viability as a potential power source for a hypothetical Martian colony, there are no plans to launch it into space just yet. If it ever does make it past the atmosphere, it wouldn’t be the first nuclear reactor in space.
Dozens of similar devices have been floating over our heads since the Cold War’s space race. A majority of them were put into orbit by the Soviet Union while the United States managed to launch one. None of them ever worked as intended and one of them ended up crashing down onto a desolate part of Canada in 1995. A cloud of nuclear debris is still in orbit thanks to that fiasco.
So let’s hope, for the sake of future interplanetary cities, that KRUSTY is less of a wash-up than its predecessors and Krusty the Clown.