National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Glenn Research Center

Nuclear Systems Project (NSP)

Mars Fission Surface Power System Concept

Mars Fission Surface Power System Concept

NASA has studied the use of nuclear power for planetary surface applications for many decades. NASA continues to work toward human missions to Mars as its long-term goal. Nuclear fission surface power (FSP) is an important technology for enabling and sustaining human exploration of Mars, and FSP development and demonstration in space prior to human Mars mission is a prudent step on the flexible path to Mars.

Power requirements for human-tended surface outposts and bases are expected to range from 25 to 100 kWe during the early build-up phases. As the base becomes fully operational with in-situ resource production and closed-loop life support, power requirements could approach 1 MW. The most mass-efficient means of providing high power for surface missions is through the use of nuclear fission systems.


  • Develop advanced fission based power systems for surface applications, as well as intermediate flexible path missions that can demonstrate fission surface power in space while supporting mission goals
  • Conduct design studies to determine reference concept and system performance attributes
  • Conduct experimental studies to reduce the development risk of FSP components and systems

Approach In Developing Fission Surface Power

  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration/Department of Energy (NASA/DOE) system co-design
  • Close collaboration with Human Spaceflight Architecture teams
    • Common design for all surface applications
  • Hardware-Based Risk Reduction
    • Reactor components (fuels, materials, pumps)
    • Power conversion (Stirling or Brayton)
    • Heat rejection (radiators, heat pipes, pumps)
    • Power Management and Distribution (PMAD) Unit
  • Non-nuclear Technology Demonstration Unit (TDU)
  • Parallel analytical tool development and validation

Potential Missions

  • Flexible Path Demonstrations & Mission Applications
  • Mars Outpost

Current Activities

Concept Studies

Concept Studies

NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) are conducting concept studies to define a possible Fission Surface Power (FSP) system for Mars missions. Design options and development strategies were examined based on affordability and risk. The key system requirements were 40 kWe net power output, 8 year design life, and launch within eight years of beginning of system development. The resulting system uses a low temperature, uranium dioxide-fueled, liquid metal-cooled fission reactor coupled to free-piston...
High Power Stirling Test Rig

High Power Stirling Test Rig

Free-Piston Stirling power conversion has been identified as a viable option for potential fission power systems on planetary surfaces. Studies examined the use of Stirling convertors coupled to a low-temperature (< 900K), uranium-dioxide fueled, liquid-metal-cooled reactor for potential  surface application. The system is considered a low development risk based on the use of terrestrial-derived reactor technology and conventional materials.  All required materials and components will b...
Technology Demonstration Unit (TDU)

Technology Demonstration Unit (TDU)

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Glenn Research Center (GRC) at Lewis Field is planning a Technology Demonstration Unit (TDU) as an early step in the potential development of Fission Surface Power (FSP) systems. The goal of the TDU is to assemble the major components of a power system (heat source, power conversion, heat rejection, power conditioning and distribution) and conduct non-nuclear, integrated system testing in thermal-vacuum to evaluate overall performance....

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