Something the size of a paper towel roll will power us to Mars — and it was developed here

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Fifty years ago, scientists at Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge helped the Apollo 11 astronauts make it to the moon, but now they've got their sights set on something much farther away — Mars.

That has gotten a lot easier thanks to their new friend, KRUSTY.

The power of KRUSTY, or the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology, will blow your mind.

KRUSTY's three small nuclear reactors are each about the size of a paper towel roll. But it can produce enough energy to power an entire city — much more than any other attempt to create such a power source.

But how can spacecraft travel all the way to Mars with limited fuel? The world's top nuclear energy experts at Y-12 think they have the answer.

Highly enriched uranium is the key, said Morris Hassler, Y-12's senior director of global security and strategic partnerships, and Chris Robinson, senior technical consultant of strategic program initiatives.

"NASA has asked other scientists what they could do with this amount of power," Robinson said. "It opens their minds to new projects they never thought possible."

"It blows their minds," Hassler said.

If anyone knows how to harness nuclear energy, it's the scientists at Y-12. Workers at the facility created the nuclear bombs that dropped on Japan and still maintain and produce all uranium parts for every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal.

"Nuclear energy is a great solution," Hassler said, explaining that it's safer than people tend to think. "There is just a political challenge holding it back."

KRUSTY works by confining reactions between uranium and neutrons in a tight space. Then heat is released, generating massive amounts of electricity to power a spaceship into the galaxy.

Scientists hope that KRUSTY can be used to set up jump-off points for astronauts in space so that they can travel farther by making a few stops along the way.

And it's far beyond the drawing board. KRUSTY has successfully completed a full-power, full-temperature run at the Nevada National Security Site but has not been used in space yet.

NASA and Y-12 have a relationship that goes back decades. Y-12 scientists built the moon boxes that carried more than 50 pounds of moon rocks on the first Apollo mission in 1969. NASA trusts the scientists at Y-12 to create some of the most cutting-edge technology for space exploration, and KRUSTY is no exception.

"KRUSTY is a game-changer," Hassler said. "It enables astronauts to explore space like never before."

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Allie Clouse

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Published July 19, 2019