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In 2018 at the Nevada National Security Site, scientists finished tests of the first new US nuclear reactor design in about 40 years. That new device wasn’t a typical reactor. Called Kilopower, it was meant not for use on Earth but for use in space. For a total of 28 hours, the reactor core sustained a controlled chain reaction involving uranium-235. That fission generated approximately 3 to 4 kilowatts of thermal energy, which flowed through heat pipes and into an electricity-producing Stirling engine.

Someday, such a system could power and propel spacecraft or keep the lights on in lunar or Martian habitats. That sort of nuclear electricity source would be a major advance; no one has launched a fission reactor since 1965. A series of federal policy declarations has helped revive research on those devices, and the possibility has caught the eye of the US Space Force (USSF).

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