Lunar outpost fission potential

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NASA believes that nuclear fission could become a source of power for astronauts on future lunar outposts.

Nuclear fission may become a source of power for astronauts on future lunar outposts.

NASA engineers are currently testing the possibility of using a surface power system to generate up to 40 kilowatts of electric power on the moon’s surface.

Nuclear fission does not rely on sunlight and has the potential to operate in harsh environments while producing large amounts of power.

The fission process involves splitting uranium atoms to generate heat, which is then converted to electric power.

Engineers at NASA’s Glenn Center are hoping to build a technology demonstration unit to conduct non-nuclear, integrated system testing on this process.

Glenn is currently contracted to the design and testing of two different types of advanced power conversion units.

Ohio-based Sunpower has provided the initial design concept. Its model makes use of two opposed pistons attached to alternators to produce 12 kilowatts of power.

The second model has been developed by Barber Nichols. The company is attempting to generate 12 kilowatts of power via a closed Brayton cycle engine with high-speed turbine connected to a rotary alternator.

Lee Mason, principal investigator for experiments at NASA’s Glenn Center, said: ‘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.’

Following a one-year period of design and analysis, a single contractor will be selected to produce and test a prototype unit.

Glenn will be working with the US Department of Energy and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to produce a liquid metal reactor simulator to act as the heat source for the demonstrations.

NASA is hoping to minimise programmatic risks by verifying system methods in a controlled environment. The tests form a significant contribution to NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Programme.

2012 and 2013 have been given as provisional dates for its demonstration.