NASA is getting ready to make a major announcement about a new energy source which could put man on Mars.

The US space agency has been testing an affordable fission nuclear power system which could run processing equipment to transform resources on the Red Planet into oxygen, water and fuel.

The new technology would change the concept of how we explore Mars. Until, now it has been thought one mission would operate at a time, but the new nuclear fissionb energy source would allow multiple exploration missions. Think of the difference, in terms of exploration, between Columbus arriving in America, and American settlers pioneering the west.

The Kilopower project is part of Nasa’s Space Technology Mission Directorate’s (STMD) development program and experts will gather at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas on Thursday to make an announcement on progress.

Patrick McClure, project lead on the Kilopower work at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Los Alamos National Laboratory, where testing took place, said: “A space nuclear reactor could provide a high energy density power source with the ability to operate independent of solar energy or orientation, and the ability to operate in extremely harsh environments, such as the Martian surface.”

David Poston, Los Alamos’ chief reactor designer, said: “The reactor technology we are testing could be applicable to multiple NASA missions, and we ultimately hope that this is the first step for fission reactors to create a new paradigm of truly ambitious and inspiring space exploration.

“Simplicity is essential to any first-of-a-kind engineering project – not necessarily the simplest design, but finding the simplest path through design, development, fabrication, safety and testing.”

The pioneering Kilopower reactor could produce from one to 10 kilowatts of electrical power, continuously for 10 years or more. The average US household runs on five kilowatts.

The prototype power system uses a solid cast uranium-235 reactor core, about the size of a paper towel roll. Reactor heat is transferred through passive sodium heat pipes, with that heat then converted to electricity by high-efficiency Stirling engines.

A Stirling engine uses heat to create pressure forces that move a piston, which is coupled to an alternator to produce electricity, similar to a car engine.

Lee Mason, STMD’s principal technologist for Power and Energy Storage at NASA Headquarters, said the Kilopower testing is to “give us confidence” that the technology is ready for space flight development.

Mason said: “Having a space-rated fission power unit for Mars explorers would be a game changer. No worries about meeting power demands during the night or long, sunlight-reducing dust storms. It solves those issues and provides a constant supply of power regardless of where you are located on Mars. Fission power could expand the possible landing sites on Mars to include the high northern latitudes, where ice may be present.”

NASA has flown a number of missions powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) over the past five decades, such as onboard the two Viking Mars landers, the Curiosity rover now at work on the Red Planet, the Apollo expeditions to the moon, the two Voyager spacecraft, and the New Horizons probe to Pluto and beyond, as well as the just-concluded Cassini mission at Saturn. RTGs produce electricity passively with no moving parts, using the heat from the natural decay of their radioisotope heat source. However, their output is low.

Mason said: “What we are striving to do is give space missions an option beyond RTGs, which generally provide a couple hundred watts or so.

“The big difference between all the great things we’ve done on Mars, and what we would need to do for a human mission to that planet, is power. This new technology could provide kilowatts and can eventually be evolved to provide hundreds of kilowatts, or even megawatts of power. We call it the Kilopower project because it gives us a near-term option to provide kilowatts for missions that previously were constrained to use less.”

The technology could also be used for a new moon landing, according to Mason. The last manned mission to the lunar surface was 1972.

Mason added: “The technology doesn’t care. Moon and or Mars, this power system is agnostic to those environments.”

NASA’s announcement is scheduled for 2pm GMT on Thursday, January 18.