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If all goes as planned, sometime in the next decade an American robotic lander will arrive at a burgeoning moon base toting a small nuclear reactor. Inside the reactor a boron control rod will slide into a pile of uranium and start a nuclear chain reaction, splitting uranium atoms apart and releasing heat. Next that warmth will be piped to a generator. Then the lights will come on—and stay on, even through long, cold lunar nights.

After a half-century struggle to develop a nuclear power plant for use in space, NASA just completed a successful test of a brand-new design. The next milestone for the new reactor, called Kilopower, could be an inaugural spaceflight sometime in the 2020s. Developed with the Department of Energy (DoE), Kilopower marks the first new nuclear reactor of any kind in the U.S. in 40 years. It could transform energy production for space exploration, especially for permanent human outposts elsewhere in the solar system.

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Category: Science