NASA wants nuclear reactor on the Moon by 2030

Space boffins task engineers with creating 40kW lunar fission plant that can operate for ten years


NASA has chosen the three companies it will fund to develop a nuclear fission reactor ready to test on the Moon by the end of the decade.

This power plant is set to be a vital component of Artemis, the American space agency's most ambitious human spaceflight mission to date. This is a large-scale project to put the first woman and first person of color on the Moon, and establish a long-term presence on Earth's natural satellite.

NASA envisions [PDF] astronauts living in a lunar base camp, bombing around in rovers, and using it as a launchpad to explore further out into the Solar System. In order for this to happen, it'll need to figure out how to generate a decent amount of power somehow.

Enter fission surface power. A nuclear fission reactor harnesses the energy released from splitting apart atoms like uranium. Unlike solar panels, fission reactors can provide constant power and can be placed in dark cool corners of the lunar surface that receive little to no sunlight. NASA believes it will need 40 kilowatts of power for the first lunar inhabitants. Last year, the agency, with the US government's Dept of Energy, invited companies to send in proposals of how to build such a system.

"Plentiful energy will be key to future space exploration," Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, said at the time. "I expect fission surface power systems to greatly benefit our plans for power architectures for the Moon and Mars and even drive innovation for uses here on Earth."

Now, NASA and Dept of Energy officials have selected three of the best ideas. Projects led by aerospace and energy companies Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse of Cranberry Township, and IX, a joint venture between Intuitive Machines and X-Energy, have each been awarded $5 million over twelve months to build prototype designs for the future power source in a competition overseen by the Idaho National Laboratory.

"The Fission Surface Power project is a very achievable first step toward the United States establishing nuclear power on the Moon," said INL Director John Wagner. "I look forward to seeing what each of these teams will accomplish."

The first phase of the contract will focus on providing NASA with more information on how to build a "full flight-certified fission power system," which could be safely launched to the Moon for testing by 2030. The finished design should be capable of power generation for ten years.

NASA is also funding other initiatives aimed at helping future astronauts survive more than 200,000 miles away from Earth. Humans will need sustenance, and a means of communication with folks back home. 

Scientists at the University of Florida were able to grow tiny Arabidopsis thaliana plants, an edible weed related to mustard greens, and other vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, in Moon soil for the first time. The dirt was collected during the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 missions. However, the plants were weaker and smaller than ones grown in Earth soil. NASA is also launching two instruments to drill and study ice cores beneath the lunar surface to hunt for water as part of its PRIME-1 mission expected to launch next year. 

Meanwhile, Nokia has been given $14.1 million and tasked with building a 4G Moon communications network. The system should be designed to support enough bandwidth that the future space explorers should be able to transmit data, control lunar rovers remotely, and stream videos in high definition. ®


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