NASA is developing plans to put nuclear reactors on the moon.
The tiny reactors would provide power for future human settlements.
If they work, nuclear reactors could eventually be brought to Mars, an expert told Insider.
NASA has asked companies to draw up plans for the reactors that could be installed on the moon, hinting at a future in which a permanent lunar base runs on nuclear fuel.
NASA aims to send humans back to the moon by 2025 to lay the groundwork for human settlement on the moon. NASA then wants to use them as a launch pad to Mars.
Colonizing the moon means bringing the infrastructure for everyday life. That includes a reliable source of power for activities like drilling, heating, cooling, rover charging and more. Nuclear power is the best option, NASA said.
“This could also be a springboard to develop the technology and expertise that we could then take to Mars,” said Todd Tofil, manager of the Fission Surface Power project at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.
KRUSTY the nuclear reactor
The biggest challenge in getting nuclear power to the moon is getting a reactor on a rocket, Tofil said.
NASA has been working on developing a rocket-sized reactor for the last 15 years and they have come up with a novel design called the Kilopower Reactor using Stirling (KRUSTY) technology.
The reactor, shown in the video below, would generate around 1 to 10 kilowatts of power continuously for at least 10 years. That’s much smaller than the nuclear power plants on Earth, but it’s enough to power several average homes.
It is based on a small enriched uranium core about the size of a paper towel roll wrapped in a heavy metal shell.
Unlike most nuclear reactors on Earth, which use steam engines, this design is based on a Stirling engine, which uses pistons to convert heat into energy. This is a much more efficient design for the size.
To cool the system, excess heat will be dissipated through large radiators. In the earlier prototype design, this is the large circular disk above the engine.
A safe process
The first question is whether launching nuclear fuel from Earth to the Moon is safe. This.
Before the nuclear fuel is placed in the reactor, it is very slightly radioactive. So even in the unlikely event that a rocket exploded in Earth’s atmosphere while carrying it, it wouldn’t be a significant radioactive threat.
Each reactor only uses a very small amount of fuel, so each emits relatively little radiation. The core is also securely clad in metal to absorb radiation and prevent material from escaping.
The reactor also has systems that shut it down if a problem with the cooling is detected.
The reactors are essentially disposal reactors: unlike Earth reactors, the plan is to abandon them after the fuel runs out. This means that there is no need for a disposal plan for the waste: it can remain in the reactor and become less and less radioactive.
“Once it’s turned off, for example, if the natural usefulness of its life comes to an end, then over a period of weeks that radiation level would drop to fairly low levels,” Tofil said.
From the moon to Mars
NASA has entered the final stages of development of this project. The KRUSTY design was successfully tested on Earth in 2018 and last month the agency awarded contracts to industry partners to bring the design from prototype to product.
The next steps are to make sure the reactor can withstand the pressures of space flight, including the intense vibration that comes with it.
NASA has bigger than Mars plans for reactors. If they work, they could also be taken to Mars.
They could also help us get there, as information collected on the moon could help develop concepts for nuclear-powered deep space exploration.
“We are trying to encourage industry to design the lunar unit so that, with minimal changes, it can be used on Mars,” Tofil said.
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