Concept of a fision reactor on the surface of the Moon.

Concept of a fision reactor on the surface of the Moon.
Photo: NASA

If nothing is twisted and there are no more delays, the Artemis missions could return humans to the Moon by 2024, but a one-time mission is one thing, and a permanent base is quite another. The latter will require huge amounts of energy, and right now there is only one technology that provides that energy in a manageable size: nuclear.

NASA just announce a new joint project halfway with the Department of Energy. Both institutions will begin to look for partners among the companies that want to participate with one goal: to design a nuclear reactor that can operate on the surface of the Moon.

It is not the first time that NASA studies the possibility of installing nuclear reactors on the Moon. The Kilopower project pursued this same goal. The novelty is that for the first time the agency intends to bring a real prototype to the surface of our satellite to make it operate there.

What NASA and DOE need is a miniature fission reactor (the same type used in nuclear power plants) that can be docked on a lander or even be transported by a Lunar Rover. The reactor must be capable of providing 40 kilowatts, which is enough power to power 30 homes for ten years or, in this case, a permanent moon base.

An artist's concept of nuclear generators on Mars.

An artist’s concept of nuclear generators on Mars.
Photo: NASA

The agencies have opened a deadline to receive proposals that will end in February 2022. The winning project will have one year of support from NASA for its development. The idea is to have it up and running in about ten years, although at this point there is still no set date.

Although it may not have the best press on Earth, nuclear power has been the power source that has made space exploration possible. Usually what has been used so far in probes like Voyager or New Horizons they are small piles of oxide Plutonium 238. The degradation of this isotope generates thermal energy, which in turn is converted into electricity. The Plutonium problem (apart from its shortage) is that it would take a lot to power an entire lunar base. For that you need a conventional reactor. Its success depends not only on the establishment of a permanent lunar base, but also future colonizations such as that of Mars. [NASA]


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