Nuclear goes to the moon

Although delayed, many in the nuclear industry are watching NASA’s Artemis project for what we can learn as they develop the fission surface power system for space exploration and nuclear propulsion systems.

The Artemis program is in its early design stages of a flight-qualified fission power system that can be established on the moon. The experts at NASA’s Glenn Research Center expect the initial work to be a demonstration project, scalable to support future space exploration. Combining solar cells, batteries and fuel cells with a nuclear reactor will provide the power to operate rovers, conduct experiments and even to use the moon’s natural resources to make water and other necessary items.

Nuclear energy is especially attractive for space exploration because it is reliable, makes a lot of power and can be portable. On the moon, solar is impractical due to the weeks-long lunar nights. One nuclear reactor that produces 40 kilowatts could provide power on the moon continuously for 10 years, and a reactor that small could be made lightweight so that it could be transported from the Earth to the moon.

At the same time, NASA is also developing nuclear propulsion systems to support missions to Mars. The heat from a nuclear reactor is used to convert a liquid, like xenon, to a gas, which can then be used for propulsion. Nuclear thermal propulsion technology provides high thrust and is more efficient than chemical rockets. This would allow for shorter mission times for crews to make the round-trip flight to Mars.

In both cases, nuclear science continues to enable space exploration, and, as new technologies are developed, we can begin to imagine new applications here on Earth.


Learn more about NASA’s Artemis program here.

Learn more about fission surface power for space exploration here.  


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