Leveraging Commercial Nuclear Reactors to Power Space Exploration
As part of NASA’s Game Changing Development program, the Kilopower reactor is under development, a novel fission power system intended to power NASA’s missions in deep space and on the surface of Mars. An investigation of the feasibility of the Kilopower system development revealed that the monetary cost of development and complexity of previous NASA fission reactor designs has led to project cancelation and that the budgeted resources available to develop Kilopower are lower than those previous reactor development programs. The study concludes that while the relatively simple Kilopower architecture is poised to provide low cost, near-term power in the 1-10 kilowatts electric (kWe) range, the financial barrier to scaling the reactor for applications on Mars poses a significant risk. Quantitative analysis of commercial small modular reactor (SMR) designs demonstrates that both solid core and molten salt reactor designs demonstrate relatively high reliability and power density, although the designs lack high technology readiness level. A case study of Alpha Tech’s ARC Reactor concept demonstrates that a commercial reactor concept has potential to be adapted to fulfill NASA’s goals without sacrificing primary requirements for reliability, safety, and power density. This study concludes that commercial reactor development merits further investigation as an alternative to NASA’s development for reactors greater than 10kWe.