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Researchers at NASA and the Department of Energy recently tested key technologies for developing a nuclear fission reactor that could power a human outpost on the moon or Mars. The tests prove that the agencies could build a "safe, reliable, and efficient" system by 2020, the year NASA plans to return humans to the moon.
A fission reactor works by splitting atoms and releasing energy in the form of heat, which is converted into electricity. The idea for using nuclear power in space dates back to the late 1950s, when they were considered for providing propulsion through Project Orion. In the 1960s a series of compact, experimental space nuclear reactors were developed by NASA under the Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power program. But public safety concerns and an international treaty banning nuclear weapons in space stopped development.
Now nuclear power is being considered for lunar and Mars missions because, unlike alternatives such as solar power, it can provide constant energy, a necessity for human life-support systems, recharging rovers, and mining for resources. Solar power systems would also require the use of energy storage devices like batteries or fuel cells, adding unwanted mass to the system. Solar power is further limited because the moon is dark for up to 14 days at a time and has deep craters that can obscure the sun. Mars is farther away from the sun than either the Earth or the moon, so less solar power can be harvested there.