NASA completes the initial phase of lunar nuclear power project

NASA has completed the initial phase of its fission surface power project, which will provide nuclear power on the lunar surface.

Nuclear power on the lunar surface is necessary because NASA has plans for long-term human presence on the lunar surface through its Artemis program and eventually on Mars.

Artist’s illustration of the nuclear power project on the lunar surface
Artist’s illustration of the nuclear power project on the lunar surface. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA will send astronauts and establish a long-term presence on the lunar surface in the late 2020s, again after the 1970s, through its advanced human exploration missions called the Artemis program.

Nuclear power will provide electricity on the lunar surface during the long lunar night which lasts 14.75 days. Solar batteries stop working as the temperature goes down to about -208°F (-130° C) during the long lunar night.

An artist's illustration shows Artemis crews are working on the lunar night
An artist’s illustration shows Artemis crews are working on the lunar night. Nuclear power on the lunar surface would be necessary to sustain this kind of mission. (Image credit: NASA)

“A demonstration of a nuclear power source on the Moon is required to show that it is a safe, clean, reliable option,” said Trudy Kortes, program director, Technology Demonstration Missions within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“The lunar night is challenging from a technical perspective, so having a source of power such as this nuclear reactor, which operates independent of the Sun, is an enabling option for long-term exploration and science efforts on the Moon.”

NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded $5 million to each commercial partner in 2022 to develop initial designs of the nuclear fission reactor.

The commercial partner companies, Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse, and IX (a joint venture of Intuitive Machines and X-Energy) were given 12 months to finish the initial design phase.

NASA asked the partners to keep the following points in mind while designing nuclear fission reactors:

First, the weight of the reactor should stay under six metric tons and be able to produce at least 40 kilowatts (kW) of electrical power.

Second, the reactor should be capable of operating for at least 10 years in the lunar environment without human intervention.

In the U.S., 40 kW can power an average of 33 households for 10 years, according to NASA.

“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.”

Now NASA plans to extend the initial phase of the fission surface power project with the partners to gather more information.

“We’re getting a lot of information from the three partners,” Kaldon said. “We’ll have to take some time to process it all and see what makes sense going into Phase 2 and levy the best out of Phase 1 to set requirements to design a lower-risk system moving forward.”

In phase 2, NASA will finalise the design of the reactor and it’s planned for 2025. After phase 2, the reactor will be delivered to the lunar surface in the early 2030s.

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Ashim

Ashim Chandra Sarkar founded Space & Telescope in 2022. He holds a M.Sc. in physics and has five years of research experience in optical astronomy. His passion for astronomy inspired him to open this website. He is responsible for the editorial vision of spaceandtelescope.com.

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