Nuclear power could help astronauts survive 336-hour lunar nights

Nuclear power could help astronauts survive 336-hour lunar nights

Nuclear power could help astronauts survive 336-hour lunar nights

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

But unlike the Apollo missions which sent astronauts to the equatorial region of the Moon, the Artemis program will send astronauts to the South Pole-Aitken basin of the Moon, resulting in the creation of a habitat (the Artemis Basecamp).

This region contains many permanently shadowed craters and experiences a night cycle that lasts 14 days (a “lunar night”). Since solar power will be limited under these conditions, astronauts, spacecraft, rovers, and other surface elements of Artemis will need additional power sources that can operate in cratered regions and during long lunar nights.

Looking for potential solutions, the Ohio Aerospace Institute (OAI) and NASA’s Glenn Research Center recently held two space nuclear technology workshops designed to foster solutions for long-duration missions away from Earth.

Propelling Through Lunar Darkness

Lunar vehicles could be powered by nuclear energy when other forms are rare.Nasa

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

These workshops were the final step in the collaborative development between NASA and the DOE of nuclear technologies for crewed space exploration programs. In terms of propulsion, these efforts have aimed to advance proposals for nuclear-thermal and nuclear-electric (NTP/NEP) propulsion systems. In the first case, a nuclear reactor is used to heat propellants like liquid hydrogen (LH2); in the latter, the reactor generates electricity for a magnetic motor that ionizes an inert gas like xenon (aka Ion Propulsion).

In 2021, NASA and the US Department of Energy (DOE) selected three reactor design proposals for a nuclear thermal system that could send cargo and crew to Mars and science missions to the outer solar system. The contracts, worth approximately $5 million each, were awarded through the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL). In June 2022, they went on to select three design concept proposals for a Fission Surface Power (FSB) system that would expand NASA’s Kilopower project and could be sent to the Moon as a technology demonstration for the Artemis program.

The nuclear technology workshops brought together more than 100 engineers, managers and power systems experts from government, industry and academia to discuss topics ranging from fission surface power to space nuclear propulsion systems. The event brought together speakers and panelists from NASA, DOE, 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 power is essential for exploration of the Moon and Mars, and nuclear technology can provide robust, reliable power in any environment or location, regardless of available sunlight. As we move forward with projects such as Fission Surface Power and nuclear propulsion, it makes sense to look at the work that has been done in the past at NASA and other agencies to see what we can learn.

Go 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 requirements for missions requiring nuclear power, such as long-duration missions beyond Earth where solar power is not always an option. This includes the south polar region of the Moon, but also on Mars, where increased distance and periodic dust storms can also limit solar energy.

The workshop also included discussions of test material from previous programs that may be relevant to today’s projects. Things ended with a tour of Glenn’s seven facilities engaged in nuclear research. Said Lee Mason, Deputy Head of Glenn’s Power Division:

“The workshop provided a great opportunity to discuss technological advancements and provide new industry teams with an opportunity to learn from the past and build on the foundations that have been established. Strong industry-government collaboration and knowledge sharing will help us succeed with Artemis and missions beyond.

The second workshop took place in early December and brought together more than 500 people from 28 countries (in person and virtually) to discuss how to meet the extreme challenges of operations in the lunar night. During the three-day workshop, participants learned about relevant developments in the field from electrical 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 in partnership with NASA as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which will begin delivering experiments and technology demonstrations on the lunar surface early of 2023. Most of these missions rely on solar panels or batteries and will face power and thermal challenges when they land in the Aitken South Pole Basin. Since these systems must remain in operation for longer than one lunar day (also 14 days), CLPS providers will also benefit from advanced power systems.

As Tibor Kremic, head of Space Science Project Office at NASA Glenn summed it up:

“The Moon is in the throes of extreme conditions, especially during the lunar night, for which we must prepare. To do this, we bring together leading experts from NASA, commercial partners, universities and other entities to share information, review technical capabilities, and discuss challenges and solutions ahead. The workshop was a learning experience for all of us, helping to better prepare our CLPS providers and increase our understanding of the various capabilities and technical constraints as we continue to prepare for ever more ambitious payload deliveries to some of the most challenging locations in the solar system.”

These workshops also leverage NASA’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative, which is dedicated to fostering partnerships that will lead to the technologies needed to live and explore on the surface of the Moon. The Initiative is particularly focused on technologies that enable in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), power generation, lunar dust mitigation, excavation and construction on the surface of the Moon, l 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 enable crewed missions to Mars in the early 2030s. This presents even greater challenges, ranging from logistics and transportation ( transit time of up to nine months) to power systems for surface operations. Here too, nuclear propulsion (which could reduce transit times to 100 days) and nuclear reactors capable of powering surface habitats and vehicles for long-duration missions are in great demand.

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

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

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