Nuclear power could help astronauts survive 336-hour lunar nights

Nuclear power could help astronauts survive 336-hour lunar nights

With help of international and commercial partners, NASA is sending astronauts back to the moon for the first time in over 50 years. In addition to sending crewed missions to the lunar surface, the long-term goal of the Artemis program is to create the necessary infrastructure for a program of “sustained lunar exploration and development.”

However, unlike the Apollo missions that sent astronauts to the equatorial region of the Moon, the Artemis program will send astronauts to the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin, culminating in the establishment of a habitat (Artemis Basecamp).

This region contains many permanently shadowed craters and experiences a night cycle lasting 14 days (a “moon night”). Since solar energy will be limited under these conditions, the Artemis astronauts, spacecraft, rovers and other surface elements will require additional power sources that can operate in cratered areas and for long months.

In search of potential solutions, the Ohio Aerospace Institute (OAI) and NASA Glenn Research Center recently hosted two nuclear space technology workshops designed to advance solutions for long-duration missions away from Earth.

Stream through the dark of the moon

Lunar vehicles can be powered by nuclear power when other forms are scarce.NASA

NASA’s Glenn is home to NASA’s Power Systems Research, where engineers and technicians work to develop advanced power generation, energy conversion and storage methods – with applications ranging from solar, thermal energy and batteries to radioisotopes, fission and regenerative fuel cells. The Clevand-based OAI is a non-profit research group dedicated to fostering partnerships between government and industry to advance aerospace research. OAI has a long history of collaborating and contracting with NASA and DOD.

These workshops were the final step in NASA and DOE’s collaborative development of nuclear technologies for manned space exploration programs. In terms of propulsion, this effort has aimed to advance proposals for nuclear-thermal and nuclear-electric propulsion (NTP/NEP) systems. In the former case, a nuclear reactor is used to heat propellants such as liquid hydrogen (LH2); in the latter, the reactor generates electricity for a magnetic motor that ionizes an inert gas such as xenon (aka Ion Propulsion).

In 2021, NASA and the US Department of Energy (DOE) selected three reactor design proposals for a nuclear thermal system capable of sending cargo and crews to Mars and science missions to the outer solar system. The contracts, valued at about $5 million apiece, were awarded through DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL). In June 2022, they followed up by selecting three design concept proposals for a Fission Surface Power (FSB) system that would augment NASA’s Kilopower project and could be sent to the Moon as a technology demonstration for the Artemis program.

The Nuclear Technology Workshops saw over 100 engineers, managers and power systems experts from across government, industry and academia come together to discuss topics ranging from fission surface power to nuclear propulsion systems in space. The event featured speakers and panelists from NASA, DOE, the Department of Defense (DOD), and the commercial sector to share knowledge, results, and lessons learned from past efforts to develop nuclear technology. Todd Tofil, NASA’s Fission Surface Power project manager, explained in a NASA press release:

“Reliable energy is essential for lunar and Mars exploration, and nuclear technology can provide robust, reliable power in any environment or location regardless of available sunlight. As we move forward with projects like Fission Surface Power and nuclear propulsion, it makes sense to look on the work that has been done in the past at NASA and other agencies to see what we can learn.”

Going nuclear

Artist’s impression of astronauts on the lunar surface, as part of the Artemis program.Credit: NASA

The first workshop (in November) included discussions of mission requirements that require nuclear power, such as long-duration missions beyond Earth where solar power is not always an option. This includes the Moon’s south polar region, but also on Mars, where the increased distance and periodic dust storms can also limit solar energy.

The workshop also featured discussions about test hardware from previous programs that may be relevant to today’s projects. Things ended with a tour of the seven Glenn facilities that conduct nuclear research. Said Lee Mason, assistant manager of Glenn’s Power Division:

“The workshop provided an excellent opportunity to discuss technological advances and give the new industry teams an opportunity to learn from the past and build on the foundation that has been established. Strong industry-authority collaboration and knowledge sharing will help us succeed with Artemis and missions beyond.”

The second workshop took place in early December and saw over 500 people from 28 countries meet (in person and virtually) to discuss how to meet the extreme challenges of operating in the Lunar Night. During the three-day workshop, participants learned about relevant developments in the field from power and thermal technology experts from NASA and other organizations. These included those funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and Exploration System Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD).

Status updates were also provided by several commercial entities partnering with NASA through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which will begin delivering experiments and technology demonstrations to the lunar surface in early 2023. Most of these missions rely on solar panels or batteries and will face power and thermal challenges when they land in the Aitken Basin at the South Pole. Since these systems must be operational for longer than one lunar day (also 14 days), CLPS providers will also benefit from advanced power systems.

As Tibor Kremic, chief of the Space Science Project Office at NASA Glenn, summarized:

“The Moon is full of extreme conditions, especially during the lunar night, for which we must prepare. We do so by bringing together leading experts from NASA, commercial partners, academia and other government entities to share insights, review technical possibilities and discuss the challenges and the solutions going forward The workshop was a learning experience for all of us, helping to better prepare our CLPS providers and increase understanding of the various technical capabilities and limitations as we continue to prepare for increasingly ambitious payload deliveries to some of the toughest the places in the solar system.”

These workshops also build on NASA’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative, which is dedicated to fostering partnerships that will lead to technologies needed for living and exploring on the lunar surface. The initiative is particularly focused on technologies that allow in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), power generation, suppression of lunar dust, excavation and construction on the lunar surface, exploration of the lunar environment and other methods that will ensure a sustainable human presence on the moon for decades to come.

Another long-term goal of the Artemis program is to establish the infrastructure and expertise that will allow crewed missions to Mars in the early 2030s. This presents even greater challenges, everything from logistics and transport (transit times of up to nine months) to power systems for surface operations. Here, too, nuclear propulsion (which can reduce transit times to 100 days) and nuclear reactors that can power surface habitats and vehicles for long-duration missions are in demand.

This is yet another example of how this age of renewed space exploration (Space Age 2.0) is spurring the development of technologies that have been dreamed of for decades!

This article was originally published on The universe today by Matt Williams. Read the original article here.

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