An artist’s rendering of a Kilopower nuclear power plant on the surface of the moon (NASA)

NASA has shown off a new nuclear reactor which could provide electricity for long-term missions to the Moon – and power the first expeditions to Mars.

The Kilopower reactor is a small, lightweight fission power system capable of providing up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power – enough to run several average households – continuously for at least 10 years.

Four Kilopower units would provide enough power to establish an outpost on Mars or the Moon.

‘Safe, efficient and plentiful energy will be the key to future robotic and human exploration,’ said Jim Reuter, NASA’s acting associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) in Washington.

‘I expect the Kilopower project to be an essential part of lunar and Mars power architectures as they evolve.’

According to Marc Gibson, lead Kilopower engineer at Glenn, the pioneering power system is ideal for the Moon, where power generation from sunlight is difficult because lunar nights are equivalent to 14 days on Earth.

“Kilopower gives us the ability to do much higher power missions, and to explore the shadowed craters of the Moon,” said Gibson.’When we start sending astronauts for long stays on the Moon and to other planets, that’s going to require a new class of power that we’ve never needed before.”

The prototype power system uses a solid, cast uranium-235 reactor core, about the size of a paper towel roll.

Passive sodium heat pipes transfer reactor heat to high-efficiency Stirling engines, which convert the heat to electricity.