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Nuclear fission reactor from NASA will provide electricity on the Moon and Mars

NASA’s Fission Surface Power Project, a nuclear fission reactor that generates electricity, has successfully completed its initial phase, marking a significant step towards powering future Moon and Mars missions.

This futuristic project aims to develop a compact nuclear fission reactor capable of generating power for astronauts, a critical resource for long-term space exploration.

In 2022, NASA awarded $5 million contracts to three commercial partners.

Each partner was tasked with creating a comprehensive initial design, encompassing the reactor, power conversion, heat rejection, power management, distribution systems, cost estimates, and a development timeline.

Nuclear fission reactor vs. solar power

This initiative is crucial for establishing a sustainable human presence on the Moon for at least a decade.

Trudy Kortes, the program director of Technology Demonstration Missions within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, emphasizes the importance of this endeavor.

“A demonstration of a nuclear power source on the Moon is required to show that it is a safe, clean, reliable option,” Kortes stated.

She highlighted the technical challenges posed by the lunar night and the necessity of a Sun-independent power source like this reactor for long-term exploration and scientific efforts on the Moon.

The limitations of solar power systems on the Moon are well-known, particularly in permanently shadowed regions and during the lengthy lunar nights, which last about 14-and-a-half Earth days.

In contrast, a nuclear reactor could offer continuous power in these challenging conditions, potentially unlocking new scientific and exploration possibilities.

Project requirements and flexibility

NASA’s approach to this project has been notably open and flexible, allowing commercial partners to employ creative solutions.

“There was a healthy variety of approaches; they were all very unique from each other,” said Lindsay Kaldon, Fission Surface Power project manager at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. “We didn’t give them a lot of requirements on purpose because we wanted them to think outside the box.”

Despite this flexibility, NASA established critical specifications for the reactor: it must weigh under six metric tons, produce 40 kilowatts (kW) of electrical power — enough for various lunar operations, and operate autonomously for a decade.

To put this in perspective, 40 kW can power an average of 33 households in the U.S.

Safety, particularly regarding radiation dose and shielding, remains a top priority. Beyond these stipulations, the partners also explored remote activation and control of the reactor, fault identification, and various fuels and configurations.

Collaborations between terrestrial nuclear companies and space experts led to a broad spectrum of innovative ideas.

Next steps towards a nuclear fission reactor

The next step involves extending the Phase 1 contracts to refine these concepts before launching Phase 2. This phase will involve selecting a final reactor design for lunar demonstration.

“We’re gathering a wealth of information from our partners,” Kaldon noted. “This will guide us in setting realistic, risk-averse requirements for Phase 2.”

NASA plans to open solicitation for Phase 2 in 2025. The goal is to have a reactor ready for a lunar launch in the early 2030s.

The reactor will undergo a one-year demonstration on the Moon, followed by nine operational years. If successful, this technology could be adapted for use on Mars.

Parallel to this, NASA has recently awarded contracts to Rolls Royce North American Technologies, Brayton Energy, and General Electric for developing Brayton power converters.

These converters are essential for transforming the thermal power from nuclear fission into electricity. However, current models are inefficient, losing much heat.

NASA’s challenge to these companies is to enhance the efficiency of Brayton converters, a crucial step towards optimizing nuclear power usage in space.

This ambitious project represents a significant leap forward in space exploration. By harnessing nuclear power, NASA aims to overcome the challenges of sustaining human life in space, paving the way for prolonged lunar stays and, eventually, human missions to Mars.


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