Are manned missions to the moon and Mars something we'll see in our lifetime? If it's up to the space engineers currently tackling how to power future rockets and spaces bases, the answer is yes. One solution in the works is the use of mini nuclear reactors in space to not only power exploration crafts but to also meet the energy needs of future bases on the moon and Mars.
Nuclear power in space exploration is nothing new. Both Russian and American space agencies have tested nuclear propulsion systems in their space craft. There are currently 30 distinct types of nuclear-powered satellites in orbit today.
It began in 1976 and continued through 1988, when Russia's Roscomos sent about 40 nuclear-electric satellites into space. They were mostly powered by BES-5 reactors, but with mixed success—not all reached orbit or even became operational once there.
Meanwhile, NASA's uranium-fueled SNAP-10A went into earth's orbit in 1965, but operated for just 43 days before it stopped responding. It is now in a slow trajectory that's expected to hit earth's ground in about 3,000 years.
For more than 50 years, NASA has provided nuclear batteries for deep space missions, such as those for the Pioneer, Voyager, and New Horizons. In fact, the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover will soon be fueled using a multi-mission radioisotope thermo-electric generator, which is essentially a battery to keep it warm and productive on its mission in search of signs of habitability on Mars. This technology depends on radioisotope power systems designed to convert heat from the natural radioactive decay of the isotope plutonium-238 into electrical power.