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What are NASA’s plans for building a nuclear power plant on the moon?

The US space agency has commissioned initial design concepts for fission power systems that could fuel manned missions to Mars.

Update:
NASA announces first step toward nuclear energy on the Moon
STEFANI REYNOLDSGetty

Earlier this year, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced plans to bring the International Space Station (ISS) back to earth, quite literally, in 2031, as the agency moves towards a new era of public-private space exploration. NASA has awarded space act agreements for the design of three free-flying commercial space stations to be built to replace the ISS, which will be safely brought down in a blaze of glory in a little under a decade, when the commitment of the current White House administration under Joe Biden commitment to extend space station operations until 2030 expires. The ISS will at the point be consigned to the so-called “Spacecraft Cemetery,” a remote area of the Pacific Ocean east of New Zealand known as Point Nemo, which is frequently used by space agencies worldwide as a target for decommissioned space objects.

At the same time as NASA is planning the next phase of its development of space stations to facilitate deep space exploration and the continuation of research and development programs, the agency recently announced another new initiative to advance its Artemis program, which includes plans to “land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon,” as well as eventually using earth’s satellite to serve as a staging point for the big one: sending the first manned mission to Mars.

To achieve these goals, NASA has been working in conjunction with the US Department of Energy to develop new space nuclear technologies. As such, the agency recently selected three proposals from a national competition set up to design nuclear power, or fission surface power, design systems to provide astronauts with a reliable source of power on the Moon.

Fission surface power could be key to reaching Mars

The three $5 million, 12-month contracts, which were awarded Battelle Energy Alliance, the managing and operating contractor for Idaho National Laboratory, were awarded to fund the development of initial design concepts for fission power systems that could have an operational life expectancy of 10 years on the lunar surface. NASA hopes that such a system could be ready to be sent to the Moon for testing before the end of the 2020s.

Among the goals of fission surface power technology is to help NASA to develop nuclear propulsion systems that can be used in deep space missions, such as sending a manned mission to Mars.

The contracts, per the NASA official website, were awarded to the following companies:

  • Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Maryland – The company will partner with BWXT and Creare.
  • Westinghouse of Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania – The company will partner with Aerojet Rocketdyne.
  • IX of Houston, Texas, a joint venture of Intuitive Machines and X-Energy – The company will partner with Maxar and Boeing.

The Fission Surface Power project is a very achievable first step toward the United States establishing nuclear power on the Moon,” Idaho National Laboratory Director John Wagner told the NASA website. “I look forward to seeing what each of these teams will accomplish.”

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