The KRUSTY has a core about as big as a paper towel roll NASA Handout via REUTERS

Nasa and the US Department of Energy have just tested a small nuclear reactor in the Nevada desert as part of the kilo power test project. It could pave the way for human space exploration as well as manned missions to Mars.

Testing began in November, and Reuters reports that the project has been working towards creating a reliable energy source that can operate on Mars, the Moon, or any other such destinations in the Solar System.

KRUSTY (Kilowatt Reactor Using Stirling Technology), is a tiny nuclear fission reactor reported to be the first new one tested by Nasa since the 1960s. It is different from thermoelectric nuclear generators that the space agency used in missions like Cassini and the Curiosity rover. Thermoelectric generators make use of the heat put out by decaying radioactive elements and convert this heat into electricity.

A fission reactor, on the other hand, literally splits atoms to generate power and Nasa has completed initial testing in a vacuum environment, reports Digital Trends (DT). The space agency will soon be testing at full power in March. "The Kilopower test program will give us confidence that this technology is ready for space flight development," said Lee Mason of Nasa.

The core of the KRUSTY reactor is about the size of a paper towel roll and it will make use of a Uranium-235 to generate power, notes the report. The Kilopower output is about 1 kilowatt (KW) to 10 KW and that is about enough to power one household appliance, notes the report. A Mars mission will reportedly require up to 40KW of power, so, there might be multiple reactors deployed for each mission.

"So Kilopower's compact size and robustness allow us to deliver multiple units on a single lander to the surface that provides tens of kilowatts of power," said Steve Jurczyk of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate.

On why such reactors are needed on Mars, Jurczyk added by saying: "Mars is a very difficult environment for power systems, with less sunlight than Earth or the moon, very cold nighttime temperatures, very interesting dust storms that can last weeks and months that engulf the entire planet."

In situations where solar power is not reliable on the red planet, with lengthy dust storms that are known to engulf it, Kilopower could be an option that could keep life support systems up and running for 10 years. These tiny power plants can even be used to convert Martian ice into useable fuel, notes the DT report.

However, it was noted that the kilowatt power output will, in future be scaled up to larger, more capable outputs. "This new technology could provide kilowatts and can eventually be evolved to provide hundreds of kilowatts or even megawatts of power," said Lee Mason. "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. But first things first, and our test program is the way to get started."