Why NASA wants to build a nuclear reactor on the moon

Earthrise image of the earth as seen from the moon

Featured Image: Artist & # 39; s concept of a new fission power system on the moon surface. Credit: NASA

Everyone is talking about the moon. It will be 50 years with Christmas since Apollo 8 flew to the moon for the first time – with the crew the famous Earthrise photos – and we are close to the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11's first moon landing and moonwalk for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Can we go back? Should we go back? NASA knows we should probably go back, if only to use the moon as an off-Earth step to allow for exploration missions of the deeper solar system, so it's been years trying to create a nuclear reactor that can be used there.

Now it may have been cracked with the compact, mobile and super-thick Kilopower, which allows deep space missions and human outposts on planets and moons in the solar system, such as on Mars or Saturn's moon Titan.

What is Kilopower?

Kilopower is a lightweight mobile nuclear fission reactor, developed by NASA and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) of the US Department of Energy. It works by splitting atoms in the uranium-235 reactor core to generate energy as heat that is converted into electricity by its highly efficient Stirling engines. It can pump away 10 kilowatts of electric power continuously for at least 10 years, more than twice as much as NASA thinks it is necessary to run an outpost on the moon or Mars.

It is almost 50 years since the iconic Earthrise photo was taken by Frank Borman of Apollo 8. Credit: NASA

(Image: © Nasa)

"Safe, efficient and abundant energy will be the key to future robotic and human exploration," said Jim Reuter, NASA Assistant Assistant to the Space Technology Space Technology Directorate (STMD) in Washington. "I expect the Kilopower project to be an essential part of the power architecture of the moon and Mars as they evolve."

The technology was successfully demonstrated between November 2017 and March 2018 as part of the experiment of the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) from NASA.

How was Kilopower tested?

    The concept of the artist of Kilopower's fission power system on the moon surface

Kilopower is needed because the moon evenings last 14 earth days. Credit: NASA

(Image: © Nasa)

If you want nuclear reactors to enter space on manned missions to the moon, Mars and beyond, it could be better to be safe. That is what the KRUSTY test has provided for.

"We threw everything we could in this reactor, in terms of nominal and non-normal business scenarios, and KRUSTY succeeded with flying colors," said David Poston, the major reactor designer at NNSA's Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The experiment included simulated power reduction, defective engines and failed heat pipes, and culminated with a 28-hour full power test simulating a mission. It is planned to be used for the first time on a spaceflight mission in 2020.

Why do we need nuclear energy on the moon?

Before you say something like & # 39; we should not pollute the room with nuclear waste, know that almost every space mission you've even heard of, radioisotopes has used thermoelectric generators that Plutonium-238 use as their electricity source. This applies to everything from Apollo and Voyager to New Horizons and Cassini.

Image of technicians with components for the Kilopower reactor

Kilopower assembly on Nevada national security site in March this year. Credit: NNSS

(Image: © NNSS)

Besides, the nights of the moon are long. If you have ever looked at the moon, you know that he always shows us the same direction. A complete job of the earth lasts 27 days, once it turns, so that is actually one Monday. The result is that the night time at any point on the moon lasts for two weeks.

"Kilopower allows us to do much higher power missions and explore the shaded craters of the moon," said Marc Gibson, head of the Kilopower engineer at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. "When we start sending astronauts for a long stay on the moon and for other planets, that will require a new class of power that we have never needed before."

Can not we use solar energy on the moon?

Concept image of Shimizu Luna Ring

A concept image of Shimizu & # 39; s Luna Ring. Credit: Shimizu

(Image: © Shimizu)

Although nights on the moon last for two weeks, in theory there is one very efficient way to produce solar energy. Japanese Shimizu has a concept to build a solid belt of solar panels several kilometers wide around the eleven thousand kilometer long equator. It assumes that half of this & # 39; sun belt & # 39; would always be in the sun and given that the moon has no atmosphere, and is therefore never cloudy, the generation of solar energy would theoretically be five times more efficient than on earth.

Is NASA going to the moon or not?

Again, it is a one-time commitment that continues to change with every new US president. The Trump government's Space Policy Directive 1 proposes robotic missions on manned missions on the lunar surface, as well as a Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway to assist astronauts in missions past the moon, to Mars or to asteroids. NASA is asking private companies to develop new technology to bring payloads to the moon.

What is the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway?

Concept image of Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway

The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway will be like an international space station for the moon. Credit: NASA

(Image: © Nasa)

The proposed Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) will be a space station that does not revolve around the earth, but the moon. NASA sees it as a & # 39; boarding point & # 39; for manned missions to both the moon and Mars, although some think it is a waste of money.

"It basically requires the construction of another space station in space, an experience that my colleagues and I have already shown on the international space station," said NASA's former astronaut and spacecraft pilot Terry Virts during a meeting of the National Space Council in June. "Gateway will only slow us down, take time and precious dollars away from the goal of returning to the lunar surface and eventually fly to Mars."

LOP-G is intended to be launched in 2022, with resident modules added in 2023. The Space Launch System rocket and the Orion spacecraft should be ready by then.

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