NASA's plan for a nuclear reactor on the moon is one step closer to becoming a reality

What do you most need to live and work on the moon? Energy. For NASA's Artemis program, providing electricity to future moon bases is a top priority.
That's why the agency created its project to power the surface with nuclear energy. The idea is to develop concepts for a small reactor to generate electricity on the lunar surface.
It has already completed the initial phase (starting in 2022), which consisted of three contracts worth $5 million with commercial partners for the development of reactor designs. NASA selected Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse and IX to award the 12-month Phase 1 to further develop preliminary designs.
Each of the partners was tasked with proposing a reactor design and systems for energy conversion, heat rejection, and energy management and distribution.
Of course, they had to provide estimated costs for their systems and development plans. The ultimate goal is to create a system that can support lunar bases for a decade. The designs would also serve as guidelines for planning and building similar systems on Mars, reports Science Alert.
Power systems are the difference between the success and failure of any mission. For the Moon and Mars, it is the difference between life and death. Nuclear power is the most likely way to meet long-term energy needs.
"A demonstration of a nuclear power source on the Moon is needed to show that it is a safe, clean and reliable option," said Trudy Cortes, program director of technology demonstration missions within the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA.
"The lunar night is technically challenging, so having a power source like this nuclear reactor that operates independently of the Sun is an opportunity for long-term exploration and science efforts on the Moon."
Why nuclear reactors?
Let's face it - living and working on the Moon comes with many challenges. Safe and clean energy helps overcome many of the dangers that lunar explorers will face. Solar energy provides a reliable source of energy to keep things running.
But at least half the time, solar power grids will be in darkness during the lunar night. This does not mean that solar energy will not be used. But it is important to have another source of energy. This is where reactors come in handy.
NASA and other agencies could place nuclear reactors in locations that are in partial or full shade. In many cases, reservoirs of ice exist in the same areas.
The advantage of nuclear reactors is that they can run full time whether there is sunlight or not. This is a big plus for electricity needs during the 14-night lunar night.
Note that NASA does not say that ONLY nuclear fission generators will be used on the moon. A combination of solar and nuclear installations will likely meet the electricity needs of habitats and scientific laboratories.
Reactor Specifications for the Moon and Beyond
In its call for further work on the projects, NASA wants to see plans for reactors that will operate for at least a decade without human intervention. This reduces any threat of accidental radiation exposure and allows lunar explorers to focus on their core science tasks.
Design specifications for the reactor state that it must be under six metric tons and produce 40 kilowatts of energy. This is enough to demonstrate the system's capabilities and provide power for habitats, networks and scientific experiments. If you put the same reactor on Earth in a typical neighborhood, it would be enough to power 33 homes.
The agency has developed the requirements to be open and flexible so that each company can feel free to explore new directions when it comes to the projects it submits.
"There was a wide variety of approaches; they were all very different from each other," said Lindsay Caldon, project manager for Fission Surface Power at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
"We deliberately didn't give them many requirements because we wanted them to think outside the box," she noted.
Now, after receiving feedback from commercial partners, NASA is beginning work on a Phase 2 solicitation for 2025. The agency then expects to deliver a system for lunar use in the early 2030s. In the more distant future, after the systems have passed their "baptism" on the Moon, NASA will likely redesign a reactor specifically for use on Mars. /BGNES