NASA And China Want To Put Nuclear Reactors On The Moon, What Could Go Wrong?

moon nuclear
NASA is looking into using nuclear fission to power a lunar base and future spacecraft to travel to Mars and beyond. If you happen to be good at nuclear fission, you also have an opportunity to score a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy for $5 billion dollars.

It is no secret that NASA is working hard to put humans back on the surface of the Moon with its upcoming Artemis missions. The date for doing so has been pushed back a bit, but the goal is to have boots back on the Moon's surface before the end of the decade. The most recent NASA rocket launch of Atlas V carried along with it technology that is aimed at improving communications in space in the form of the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD). LCRD will act as a relay satellite for spacecraft that does not have a direct line-of-sight with communication antenna based on Earth.

NASA's plan to place humans back on the Moon goes beyond just visiting for short-term missions like we have seen in the past. It also wants to eventually build a lunar base that will serve as a launching point for missions to Mars. But as we all know, the Moon does not have a power source at the moment that can provide the necessary energy to support such a base. While solar power could be an option, NASA believes that nuclear fission is the more efficient and reliable method of powering the space base. Below is an artist's rendition of what a possible fission surface power system could look like.

fission power
Image Source: NASA

China is also working on its own lunar-based nuclear reactor, and according to reports have already completed a prototype. Its prototype is said to be 100 times more powerful than what NASA has proposed. This has led to a new space race between the two countries as to which will be first to place nuclear power on the Moon.

The type of nuclear power NASA is wanting to deploy on the Moon, and eventually on Mars, is not what one typically envisions. The space agency is looking to design a small, lightweight fission power system that is capable of providing up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power. That is enough energy to run several average sized households continuously for at least 10 years. NASA is looking to use four of these small nuclear power plants, which should be sufficient in powering a robust base of operations on a base located on either the Moon or Mars.

NASA is building off its efforts of the Kilopower project, which ended in 2018. That project, named the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY, not to be confused with the clown), demonstrated heat transfer technologies using highly enriched uranium fuel in May 2018. Since then the agency has joined up with the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop the design of a 10-kilowatt fission power system for the Moon.

There is currently an opportunity that is being presented by the DOE seeking proposals by individuals and/or companies to design the power supply. In the proposal it states that the maximum award will be $5 billion. Part of the criteria for the uranium-powered nuclear reactor is that it has to be able to fit inside a 12-foot long by 18-foot-wide cargo space on a rocket. Proposals need to be sent to the DOE by February 17, 2022 (in case any of you are thinking about giving it a shot).

Part of the reasoning to go with nuclear power over solar power is that nuclear energy can produce an abundance of continuous power regardless of environmental conditions on the Moon and Mars. NASA has plans to both demonstrate and use a fission surface power system on the Moon by the end of this decade, and then Mars. The fission surface power reactor designs will focus on using High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU). The DOE and its national labs are currently exploring several methods of incorporating HALEU as a source of fuel for a reactor.

As human-kind continues to search for ways of traveling and inhabiting far off locations in space, the need for things such as a sustainable power supply will surely be toward the top of the list of things to achieve. Time will tell if the United States or China will be the first to deploy and use a nuclear based power supply on the Moon, but one can only hope that whichever it may be does so in a safe manner.