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NASA Glenn Unveils Its New Mini-Nuclear Reactor Deep Space Power System

Photo of Marc Gibson
Lead engineer Marc Gibson points to the hardware inside NASA's new Kilopower nuclear power system. The unit can generate up to 10 kilowatts of power continuously over decades with minimal maintenance.

NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland has unveiled a new source of power for deep space missions.

The device, about the size of a beer keg, generates electricity through a controlled nuclear reaction.

It’s a mini-nuclear reactor called Kilopower.

At its unveiling Wednesday, NASA engineers said that it could power a lunar space station, or missions to Mars and beyond.

Los Alamos National Laboratory’s David Poston  is co-designer of the system.

He says the new Kilopower system marks a milestone in US energy technology.

Credit NASA
NASA engineers test the new Kilopower mini-nuclear reactor system.

“This is the first new reactor not just for space – not just for NASA, but of any kind in the U.S. in 40 years.”

Poston says the self-contained Kilopower unit makes the Mars mission more feasible.

“It can get us places much quicker and much further out than we could ever do with anything else,” says Poston.

The space fission power system can provide up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power -- enough to run several average households -- continuously for at least ten years. Four Kilopower units would provide enough power to establish an outpost.

Poston says the new Kilopower unit is a much simpler design than conventional nuclear plants.

“It’s not hi-tech," says Poston. "This is as simple as you could make a reactor, which is what’s great about it.”

NASA safety experts say the Kilopower unit presents a minimal risk because the reaction doesn’t start until it’s deployed in space, and the components are self-contained, requiring minimal maintenance.

NASA would not say when the mini-nuclear reactor will be ready for space testing, but will likely be part of the Lunar Outpost mission in the next decade.