If you want to see humans begin to explore the Solar System within our lifetime, then you are probably aware that the solar panels used to generate electricity for many current spacecraft are never going to be able to provide enough power for us to do so. An alternative that provides a lot more power will be needed and NASA and the Department of Energy are working on providing that alternative. They are currently testing technology created in what they have named the Kilopower Project. The project has been going on for a couple of years and they have recently announced early results of some testing that have space enthusiasts very excited.
The prototype power system uses a solid, cast uranium-235 reactor core, about the size of a paper towel roll (details on how it works).
Current Power Options
In the movie “The Martian”, the electrical power need by Matt Damon’s character was fundamental to his survival. And it powered the rover he used to get to the site he launched from for his rescue. While much of the equipment you see in that movie does not currently exist, the power source he used is very real and has been used by NASA for decades. The power was provided by a device called a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG, RITEG), which is an electrical generator that converts the heat released by the decay of a suitable radioactive material into electricity.
How Kilopower works
Kilopower is a small, patio-umbrella-shaped reactor that’s practically immune to melting down.