NASA's exploring 3 new design concepts for nuclear power on the Moon

And at least one should be ready for launch before 2030.
Ameya Paleja
Artist's rendering of the nuclear fission reactor on lunar surfaceNASA

NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) are collaborating to make nuclear power a reality on the Moon. The agencies have shortlisted three design concepts for a nuclear fission system that can be deployed on the lunar surface, the space agency said on its website.

NASA has ambitious plans of returning humans to the Moon through its Artemis program, which recently completed its wet-dress rehearsal. Under this program, NASA aims to send a human mission to the south pole of the Moon by 2025. However, unlike previous lunar missions, the aim of the Artemis program is not just to visit the Moon but to stay there. 

For humans to stay on the Moon, one of the major hurdles to cross is how a proposed settlement will be powered. Solar panels are great for powering rovers, but the human settlement will require a continuous as well as reliable source of power. Scientists have turned to nuclear fission as the technology has been used extensively on Earth and is also relatively small and lightweight to be sent to the Moon.

Nuclear fission reactor on the Moon

Using DOE's expertise in the area, NASA evaluated multiple proposals for a 40-kilowatt class fission reactor demonstrator that will be capable of running in the lunar environment for at least ten years. The agencies have now shortlisted three design concepts that were submitted by:

  1. Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, Maryland, 
  2. Westinghouse, based in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, 
  3. IX, a joint venture between Intuitive Machines and X-Energy, based in Houston, Texas. 

Lockheed Martin has partnered with two companies for its proposal, one of which is BWXT, the company which also recently won a U.S. Department of Defense contract to build a Megawatt-scale portable nuclear reactor.  

Westinghouse is partnering with Aerojet Rocketdyne on this project, while IX's partners are Maxar and Boeing. 

The DOE has awarded $5 million contracts to the three companies listed above for Phase I work that will see the companies develop their preliminary designs over a 12-month period. The contracts were awarded through Idaho National Laboratory, whose director John Wagner said," The Fission Surface Power project is a very achievable first step toward the United States establishing nuclear power on the Moon. I look forward to seeing what each of these teams will accomplish."

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The award is also aimed at helping NASA gain critical information to develop a full-flight certified fission-powered system, the press release said. If all goes as planned, one of these systems will be ready for a launch by the end of the decade and sent to the Moon for demonstration purposes. 

On the Moon and beyond! 

NASA is not looking to only power the human settlement with this mission. The technology will also help NASA improve its nuclear propulsion systems that will also use a nuclear reactor at their core. Nuclear propulsion systems could help NASA plan deep space exploration missions. 

"New technology drives our exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond," said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. "Developing these early designs will help us lay the groundwork for powering our long-term human presence on other worlds."

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