NASA is hard at work planning a long-term lunar outpost, and the agency now has a potential solution to the energy question: miniature nuclear power systems. This week, NASA announced that it’s planning to build prototypes and simulators that will be ready for testing in 2012 or 2013.
As a lunar settlement draws closer to reality–NASA‘s Constellation Program includes returning to the moon by 2020–is busy thinking through the practical details–like how to keep the generators running and the lights on. During the day, solar power is one obvious solution. But lunar nights can last up to 334 hours in some places, and even at the moon’s south pole, the sun never rises high. A fission surface power system would be able to produce power steadily even in harsh environments such as the Moon, or even Mars, without relying on sunlight [World Nuclear News].
The lunar nuclear system would operate on the usual principles of nuclear fission, but would have a few tweaks to adapt it to the space environment. The system works by splitting uranium atoms in a reactor to generate heat, which is then converted into electric power. Because a lunar outpost reactor would only need to be designed for a small audience in mind, NASA says they could squeeze it into something as small as an office trash can [The Register]. The lunar system could be buried beneath the surface, NASA officials say, and it wouldn’t need the iconic cooling towers; any leftover heat energy would be radiated into space via enormous radiators (pictured).
The prototype will be tested in a space simulation facility, NASA said, but it won’t be fueled by uranium; engineers will substitute a safer heat source, liquid metal coolant, in the early tests. “Our goal is to build a technology demonstration unit with all the major components of a fission surface power system and conduct non-nuclear, integrated system testing in a ground-based space simulation facility,” said [NASA engineer] Lee Mason…. “Our long-term goal is to demonstrate technical readiness early in the next decade, when NASA is expected to decide on the type of power system to be used on the lunar surface” [UPI].
Read more about what humans could do with a lunar base in the DISCOVER article, “The Space Race For the New Millennium.”