The moon is waiting. After long decades, during which not a single person has stepped on the surface of the moon, we are returning. And very soon.
Under NASA’s Artemis program, astronauts are returning to lunar Wednesday as early as 2024 with the goal of ultimately establishing a long-term human presence on the Moon – a place we have not seen in person since 1972.
However, to live and work on the moon, astronauts need energy and a lot of it, and the moon has no electrical grid.
While any number of creative solutions could help solve this problem, for years NASA has viewed nuclear fission as the most practical energy option for future astronaut colonies, and now the space agency is taking the next step in building a nuclear reactor on Earth. The moon is reality.
“An abundance of energy will be the key to future space exploration,” said Jim Reiter, assistant administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD).
After years of exploring the potential for nuclear fission on the Moon through its former Kilopower project, NASA spearheaded a renewed momentum in surface nuclear fission energy research, working in conjunction with the US Department of Energy (DOE).
Both organizations are now calling on American industrial partners to submit design concepts for nuclear fission power systems that can operate on the lunar surface and be ready to launch and demonstrate their potential on the moon within a decade.
According to NASA, a small and light fission system capable of running on a lunar lander or lunar rover can provide up to 10 kilowatts of electricity, enough to meet the electricity needs of several medium-sized households.
In the context of lunar operations, energy consumption will, of course, be different from what is required by households on Earth: operating life support systems, charging the moon rovers, and helping scientists conduct experiments.
Future fission systems will ultimately have to produce at least 40 kilowatts of energy, which NASA says could power about 30 households for up to 10 years, according to a NASA and Department of Energy report.
At these expected levels, there must be enough energy not only to ensure a stable presence on the Moon, but one day to make exploration and even colonization of Mars possible – a scientific goal that Artemis ultimately aspires to.
In fact, NASA says today’s research on lunar fission energy systems could also help develop proposed nuclear propulsion systems that could one day allow astronauts to travel to the red planet in spaceships traveling at higher speeds for shorter missions.
However, step by step, as we are probably still a long way from seeing a lunar fission reactor actually working on the moon. While NASA and the DOE have had some success with Kilopower prototypes in previous experiments, no one has ever experienced something like this on the Moon, where it matters.
To get us closer to this, NASA and the DOE will select the most promising project proposals they receive by the end of February 2022 and help develop those concepts over a 12-month period.
Once these projects are evaluated, what the researchers learn will be directed towards developing and building one last flyable power fission system to be launched to the moon as part of a demonstration mission, hopefully sometime this decade.
Then, finally, the Moon should have the beginning of its own energy system – and the base of operations of mankind in space will reach a new level compared to what we built before.
“The feedback and enthusiasm we continue to see with space nuclear power systems has been very exciting and understandably so,” said Senior Engineer Sebastian Corbiziero, Surface Nuclear Energy Project Manager at the Idaho Department of Energy National Laboratory.
“Securing a robust, powerful system on the moon is an important next step in human space exploration, and achieving it is within our grasp.”