There is global space race among countries to build Moon bases, harness it’s mineral resources and helium-3, fuel for future nuclear fusion power plants. Unlike Earth, which is protected by its magnetic field, the Moon has been bombarded with large quantities of Helium-3 by the solar wind. It is thought that this isotope could provide safer nuclear energy in a fusion reactor, since it is not radioactive and would not produce dangerous waste products.
Space agencies in China, Japan, Europe, Russia, Iran , Canada and a few private companies all hope to send people to the moon by as early as 2025. They’re talking about building bases, mining for natural resources, and studying the moon in unprecedented detail. A key figure at the European Space Agency says we must look at how we exploit the moon’s resources before it is too late, as missions begin surface mapping.
A critical requirement for such missions is the energy needed to support sustained human presence and the beginning of the industrial activity. Solar energy is abundant on the surface of the Moon, but extended night hours (350 consecutive hours) and the extreme environmental temperature change from daylight to nighttime, create problems for solar power use. Earth also addresses similar issues, where demand for additional renewable energy generation, including solar, is rising, but additional power management, distribution, and energy storage solutions are needed to address issues such as intermittency and resiliency.
Nuclear reactors could also be used to provide astronauts with a reliable source of surface power for extended exploration missions and a possible sustained human presence on other planetary bodies, supplying power for decades without need for refuelling. Fission surface power reactor designs are microreactors that could provide electrical power in the range of tens of kW for a period spanning from one to a few decades. The current focus is on using low enriched uranium fuels or high-assay low enriched uranium fuels.
Why fission? explains NASA
- It’s reliable. Fission systems can operate continuously around the clock in shadowy craters and during the weeks-long lunar nights, when power generation from sunlight is difficult.
- It’s powerful. The systems NASA is asking companies to design would provide at least 40 kilowatts of power, enough to continuously power 30 households for ten years.
- It can be compact and lightweight. Systems like these could someday provide enough power to establish an outpost on Mars.
NASA and DOE
NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy are seeking industry proposals proposal for a fission surface power system, and the goal is to have a flight system, lander and reactor ready to launch by 2026. Anthony Calomino, NASA’s nuclear technology portfolio lead within the Space Technology Mission Directorate, said that the plan is to develop a 10-kilowatt class fission surface power system for the demonstration on the moon by the late 2020s. The facility will be fully manufactured and assembled on Earth, then tested for safety and to make sure it operates correctly.
“A low enriched form of nuclear fuel will power the nuclear core,” he said. “The small nuclear reactor will generate heat that is transferred to the power conversion system. The power conversion system will consist of engines that are designed to operate on reactor heat rather than combustible fuel. Those engines use the heat, convert it to electric power that is conditioned and distributed to user equipment on the lunar and Martian surfaces. Heat rejection technology is also important to maintain the correct operating temperatures for the equipment.
Afterwards, it will be integrated with a lunar lander, and a launch vehicle will transport it to an orbit around the moon. A lander will lower it to the surface, and once it arrives, it will be ready for operation with no additional assembly or construction required. The demonstration is expected to last for one year, and could ultimately lead to extended missions on the moon, Mars, and beyond.
“Once the technology is proven through the demonstration, future systems could be scaled up or multiple units could be used together for long-duration missions to the moon and eventually Mars,” Calomino said. “Four units, providing 10 kilowatts of electrical power each, would provide enough power to establish an outpost on the moon or Mars. The ability to produce large amounts of electrical power on planetary surfaces using a fission surface power system would enable large-scale exploration, establishment of human outposts, and utilization of in situ resources, while allowing for the possibility of commercialization.”
“NASA’s priority focus remains on designing, building and demonstrating a low enriched uranium fission surface power system that has broad applications for the lunar surface initiative as well as our eventual mission to Mars with humans, scalable to power levels above 100 kWe, and has the potential to advance NEP system needs,” said Anthony Calomino, Space Nuclear Technology Portfolio Manager at NASA.
“Use of nuclear fission reactors, carrying out continuous chain reactions for many years, is inevitable both for space propulsion and for extraterrestrial surface power,” said Vivek Lall, Chief Executive of General Atomics Global Corporation.