NASA is Upping the Power on its Lunar Wattage Challenge!

For years, NASA has been gearing up for its long-awaited return to the Moon with the Artemis Program. Beginning in 2025, this program will send the first astronauts (“the first woman and first person of color”) to the Moon since the end of the Apollo Era. Beyond that, NASA plans to establish the necessary infrastructure to allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration,” such as the Lunar Gateway and the Artemis Base Camp.

Beyond these facilities, several elements are essential to ensuring a long-term human presence on the Moon. These include shelter from the elements, food, air, water, and of course, power. To address this last element, NASA has teamed up with HeroX – the leading crowdsourcing platform – to launch the NASA Watts on the Moon Challenge. This competition is entering Phase II and will award an additional $4.5 million for innovative concepts that supply power to future lunar missions.

Illustration of NASA astronauts on the lunar South Pole. Credit: NASA

For this challenge, NASA is not seeking proposals for power generation but innovative engineering approaches for integrating power transmission and energy storage into lunar missions. Specifically, these solutions will need to support astronauts, hardware, and systems in the conditions prevalent in the South-Pole Aitken Basin. This permanently shadowed, cratered region is located around the Moon’s southern polar region and has large deposits of ice water.

In addition to NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the China National Space Agency (CNSA), and Roscosmos are all eying this region as a site for future bases. While these craters present numerous advantages (such as the availability of ice water), they also present several hazards. These environments are not subject to the extreme variations that occur around the equator, where temperatures range from -173 to 117 °C (-279 to 243 °F).

On the other hand, polar craters are permanently shadowed, and temperatures are perennially freezing, averaging -269 °C (-452 °F). Current proposals for lunar bases include placing solar arrays around the crater’s rim, but these are still limited by the extended periods of darkness and light around the poles – which last for 706 hours (or 29d 12h 44m 03s) at a time. As such, NASA and other space agencies are looking for options to provide power during extended periods of darkness.

The first phase of the competition ran from September 2020 to May 2021 and focused on theoretical approaches to energy management, distribution, and storage solutions. In the end, seven competitors were awarded a total of $500,000 in prize money for their approaches, which showed considerable promise. As a result, NASA and HeroX have launched Phase 2 to allow the winners to develop and demonstrate their proposals in simulated lunar conditions.

Habitats grouped together on the rim of a lunar crater, known as the Lunar Village. Credit: ESA

This phase of the competition will consist of three levels that will award up to 17 prizes in total. The specified requirements remain the same from Phase I, where teams chose one or more activities (collecting regolith, water production, and oxygen production) and offered solutions for energy distribution, management, and/or storage. For Phase Two, NASA has identified two specific areas that are need of improvement:

  1. Power Transmission: that can deliver power from a remote generation source to critical mission operation loads where (1) power loads are frequently or permanently immersed in extreme cold and (2) there are large variations in average power loads versus peak power loads. NASA has significant interest in both wired and wireless transmission, and the Challenge seeks to incentivize and demonstrate both types of solutions.
  2. Energy Storage: that can (1) power mission operation loads when intermittent power generation is not available and (2) survive and operate in extreme cold environments.

For this phase, NASA is looking for solutions that can be designed, built, and then tested in a simulated lunar environment with conditions mirroring the real thing (freezing cold, near-vacuum, and permanently shadowed). NASA also seeks solutions that can proceed toward flight readiness and future operation on the surface after the challenge is complete. It is also essential that these proposals work with ideas for power generation, which NASA is pursuing through many programs.

This includes the Fission Surface Power (FSP) system, a lightweight ten kilowatt (kW) nuclear reactor that emerged from the Kilopower project – which yielded the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Tech (KRUSTY) demonstrator. There’s also the novel “Light Bender” system that would use solar collectors and telescope optics to capture and distribute sunlight in shadowed craters on the Moon.

As always, the challenge is expected to advance similar technologies and have public and commercial applications here on Earth. As such, it is hoped that proposals for this competition could be adapted for power distribution and storage here at home. The competition is open to all residents in the U.S., individuals or teams, that are 18 years of age or older. Organizations must be incorporated in and maintain a primary place of business in the U.S. (some restrictions apply).

For more information, or to enroll in the challenge, visit HeroX.

Further Reading: HeroX