Solar power can offer a superior alternative to nuclear fission for generating oxygen on the moon

This would require "six times less mass to produce the same amount of energy" as the best nuclear option, says the professor.
Baba Tamim
Illustration of Artemis astronauts on the moon.
Illustration of Artemis astronauts on the moon.

NASA 

NASA's unmanned Artemis mission to the moon was a small step toward the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars and beyond. 

The second goal was to figure out how to settle and exploit the resources of the moon for research teams by the middle of the following decade. 

However, a major obstacle to setting up a colony on the moon would be mining and extracting the metals and oxygen that are linked together in the rocky regolith deposits that cover the lunar surface of the natural satellite, The Times of Israel reported on Saturday. 

"Relatively small and lightweight compared to other power systems, fission systems are reliable and could enable continuous power regardless of location, available sunlight, and other natural environmental conditions," read a NASA press release in June. 

"A demonstration of such systems on the moon would pave the way for long-duration missions on the Moon and Mars."

However, one American professor claims to have a superior option. He has created a theoretical plan to equip the moon with solar panels that could safely and efficiently address the needs of future inhabitants of the moon. 

According to calculations made by Emeritus Professor Jeffrey Gordon of Ben-Gurion University's Solar Energy and Environmental Physics Department, this plan would require six times less mass to produce the same amount of energy than the best nuclear option.

Solar panels: Reliable and safer option

With a sufficient number of panels always exposed to the sun, the professor argues that his plan would 100 percent reliably feed oxygen-producing facilities with energy.

The Glenn campus' solar researchers were in competition with other scientists who were pushing for a nuclear option, Gordon said, adding, "We discussed it, and it was stimulating."

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"NASA wants a reliable, long-lifetime, minimum mass system," he stated. "Reliability comes even before cost."

After publishing his idea in the scholarly journal Renewable Energy earlier this year, Gordon was asked to deliver a talk at the NASA John H. Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

"I developed a concept and performed all the quantitative estimates that an engineering staff at a space agency would want to review," Gordon described.

A limited amount of energy will be required during the early stages of human settlement on the moon, and NASA has already chosen six businesses to submit plans, three of which will use solar energy and the rest nuclear fission.

Gordon's proposal

Gordon's proposal called for the installation of a ring of solar panels close to one of the lunar poles; he cited the north pole as an example.

In order to balance the benefit of a relatively short lunar circumference in these areas with the necessity to ensure that the shortest daylight durations still satisfied the power requirements, they would be situated no higher (or lower, in the case of the south pole), than the 88th latitude.

The plants that produce oxygen would be around 10 kilometers (six miles) closer to a pole. This would keep the transmission lines reasonably short while maintaining a sufficient distance to avoid lunar dust produced during mining from covering the photovoltaic panels.

Gordon argued that because the lunar surface naturally acts as electrical insulation, the transmission lines would not need to be insulated.

He noted that tests examining the resilience of photovoltaic (PV) panels in the presence of cosmic radiation appeared promising. According to him, "PV should be able to survive cosmic radiation long enough to satisfy what's needed."

No answer to nuclear waste 

However, NASA's top priority is to adequately protect the people working in the oxygen plants and other jobs. This was the biggest worry. "There's no answer to that yet," said Gordon.

Gordon expressed that he had "no opinion" regarding the potential dangers of constructing nuclear reactors on the moon and pointed out that nuclear fuel could easily endure for 100,000 years, whereas turbines and generators would deteriorate within decades.

He acknowledged there will be radioactive contamination, adding that how to handle the nuclear waste is a "good question."

"At this time, my impression is that NASA is planning nuclear reactors on the moon in the long term and that the solar people are trying to persuade them otherwise or at least to have the two technologies," said Gordon.