NASA has just issued a new challenge: to design a nuclear fission facility capable of powering future missions to the Moon and Mars
It's now been since December 1972 that humans haven't returned to the Moon, but everything seems to be saying that we're about to return to the surface of our satellite, and that we're going to succeed very soon. The Artemis program, led by NASA, plans to take humans to the Moon again in 2025, but this time to stay.
In fact, among the medium-term plans of the historic mission, there are the preparation of devices capable of exploiting the natural resources of the Moon and also the use of the satellite as a "launch base" for subsequent missions to Mars.
The Ideas Competition
To live and work on the Moon, there will be a lot of energy needed. And although there has been no shortage of more creative hypotheses over the years, nuclear fission has always seemed the most viable, in the eyes of NASA engineers.
And so it is that the American dream of a nuclear reactor on the Moon becomes real. In a statement a few days ago, Jim Reuter, administrator of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), talks openly about harnessing "nuclear fission to power exploratory missions to the Moon."
"Abundant energy will be the key to future space exploration," Reuter says, so NASA in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is spearheading innovative research aimed at producing energy on the Moon.
As per tradition, the U.S. Space Agency is calling on the country's science and technology leaders, and is opening a competition for ideas to identify a "concept design for a fission energy system that is ready to be sent to the Moon within the next ten years."
NASA will select the best designs in February 2022, assisting in their development for a period of 12 months. The nuclear space facility will then be the subject of a demonstration mission that will take it to the Moon around 2030.
Why nuclear fission?
The reasons why NASA is so openly opting for energy production via nuclear fission are several: first, it is a reliable technology that can be operational even during lunar nights that last for weeks.
The sad story of Opportunity - which shut down when the solar panels were covered with Martian dust, sending the famous dramatic message "my battery is dying and it's getting dark" - can be considered as a fair warning of how fallible solar power can be, on other planets.
Nuclear power is also a very powerful form of energy production: in fact, the NASA call calls for designing plants capable of producing at least 40 kilowatts of power, basically enough to power thirty households for about 10 years.
Nuclear systems can also be today compact and light enough to be able, in the future, to produce enough energy to allow us to establish an outpost on Mars.
The nuclear systems that NASA wants to send to the Moon within the next ten years, will also serve to test the ground for future human missions to Mars, providing the energy needed for exploration and possible human colonization of the red planet.
The ultimate goal of the Artemis mission, in fact, is precisely to make possible not only a basic operation on the Moon, but also future direct missions to Mars - for which it intends to lay the technological groundwork.
Certainly the development of an energy production system is the first step for missions that intend to bring human activity on other planets in a permanent form: it is not only about powering machinery and scientific technologies, but also and above all the creation of life support systems that can allow humans to foresee long stays on the surface of other worlds.