NASA Is Going Nuclear on Mars and the Moon

Thinking about settlements in Space, the space agency is developing a nuclear reactor to function independently up there.
Fabienne Lang
Artist's rendition of the nuclear reactor NASA is developingNASA

What would living on the Moon or on Mars be like? Even though for many that may seem like an inconceivable idea only fathomable in another lifetime, it's a reality NASA is working towards. 

NASA's next mission to the Moon is as soon as 2024 and researchers are focusing on how to power settlements on the lunar surface and Mars.

It's looking more and more likely that nuclear reactors will play this role, as recently reported by Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society.


Going nuclear

Powering up a settlement on the Moon or on Mars is no easy task. To begin with, the power source needs to be safely transportable from Earth to the Moon and Mars, and once there, it must be able to withstand their harsh conditions.

Solar power would not be an option as the myriad dark craters of the Moon and the dusty plains of Mars would not offer enough light. Another option that doesn't offer enough energy is nuclear devices that run on decaying plutonium-238, which have been used to power spacecraft since the 1960s.

However, nuclear fission reactors that split uranium-235 atoms that are used by power plants could indeed prove strong enough to provide reliable power for a small space settlement for a few of years, as per the researchers.

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Efforts to find adequate power sources for these settlements have been sparked up again after a bout of funding and design setbacks. 

Back in the early 2010s a team of scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, NASA, and the U.S. Department of Energy was looking at developing a new nuclear fission system that would produce 10 kilowatts of energy. In order to generate heat through nuclear fission, the reactor has a core with molybdenum and highly enriched uranium, which is then converted into electricity using piston-driven engines. The end result generated 5 kilowatts of electricity.

The prototype was tested in 2018, and now the NASA team hopes to work on that technology to achieve a 10-kilowatt output.

Moreover, the researchers explain that uranium can safely be transported into Space, as the alpha particles emitted by the core are weak and are able to be contained using a shield.