NASA Looks at Fission Reactors for Power on the Moon


When astronauts return to the moon for long duration missions, they will need reliable sources of power. Solar energy will be plentiful for the 14 Earth-day- long lunar daytime, but what about the equally as long lunar night? NASA engineers are exploring the possibility of nuclear fission to provide the necessary power. If you’re having visions of a Three Mile Island nuclear reactor on the moon, put your fears to rest. A nuclear reactor used in space is much different than Earth-based systems, says Lee Mason of the NASA Glenn Research Center, who is the principal investigator for testing a fission powered system for the moon. There are no large concrete cooling towers, and the reactor is about the size of an office trash can. Of course, it won’t produce as much energy as the big reactors on Earth, but it should be more than adequate for the projected power needs of a lunar outpost.

“Our goal is to build a technology demonstration unit with all the major components of a fission surface power system and conduct non-nuclear, integrated system testing in a ground-based space simulation facility,” said Mason. “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.”

A fission surface power system on the moon has the potential to generate a steady 40 kilowatts of electric power, enough for about eight houses on Earth. It works by splitting uranium atoms in a reactor to generate heat that then is converted into electric power. The fission surface power system can produce large amounts of power in harsh environments, like those on the surface of the moon or Mars, because it does not rely on sunlight. The primary components of fission surface power systems are a heat source, power conversion, heat rejection and power conditioning, and distribution.

Glenn recently contracted for the design and analysis of two different types of advanced power conversion units as an early step in the development of a full system-level technology demonstration. These power conversion units are necessary to process the heat produced by the nuclear reactor and efficiently convert it to electrical power.

Two different companies have designed concepts that can produce a total of 12 kilowatts of power. One uses piston engines and the other a high speed turbine coupled with a rotary alternator.

“Development and testing of the power conversion unit will be a key factor in demonstrating the readiness of fission surface power technology and provide NASA with viable and cost-effective options for nuclear power on the moon and Mars,” said Don Palac, manager of Glenn’s Fission Surface Power Project.

A contractor will be selected after a year of design and analysis. Testing of the non-nuclear system is expected to take place in 2012 or 2013 to verify the performance and safety of the systems and determine if these systems can easily be used on the moon, or even on Mars.

Source: NASA

27 Replies to “NASA Looks at Fission Reactors for Power on the Moon”

  1. “…Solar energy will be plentiful for the 28.5 Earth-day- long lunar day, but what about the equally as long lunar night? …”

    I thought the lunar day was 14 Earth days the lunar night also 14 Earth days (the moon being tidally locked and all). Isn’t one lunar day 28 earth days?

  2. I’m looking forward to the day they build a fusion reactor up there. I seem to recall that He-3 is plentiful in Lunar regolith (due the solar wind?).

    Of course – getting all that power down to Earth without the risk of frying the occasional city in the process is gonna be a challenge.

  3. Dave S.: Quite probably they will. And they’ll also do it for radiation protection for its users…

    Sili: If we could make practical fusion reactors (and that’s still some years off), we’d build them on Earth for use on Earth. Unlike solar energy captured in high Earth orbit, there’d be no advantage to beaming that power from a distance…

  4. “If you’re having visions of a Three Mile Island nuclear reactor on the moon, put your fears to rest. ”

    God forbid we have a reactor leak on the Moon! After all, it’s only an environment bathed in a constant stream of highly energized particles. Whatever, man.

  5. How could this possibly go wrong?

    The sky will be very pretty with 20 billion pieces of the moon reflecting sunlight after the reactor explodes.

  6. Hmm . . . can’t help wonder how many billions of dollars will be sucked out of an already troubled economy. Another issue, how will the ‘return on investment’ be calculated? Who will be the beneficiary?

  7. Most of the “regenerative energy sources” are not useful at the moon without wind, water, biomass. The characteristic feature should be inexhaustibility in respect to the lifespan of human societies.

    If you have an idea you might become real rich one day. Cities, places and streets on the moon might carry your name.

  8. Let me help you, Mr. Lam!

    “can’t help wonder how many billions of dollars will be sucked out of an already troubled economy”

    You need not wonder/worry, because you just used the wrong description of the situation.

    “Another issue, how will the ‘return on investment’ be calculated?”

    Mathematics never concerned you before. Should it now?

  9. “If you’re having visions of a Three Mile Island nuclear reactor on the moon, put your fears to rest. ”

    Oh, please, learn some actual history and stop with the enviro-bias that already pervades this site with respect to Global Warmin…sorry, I mean Climate Change, or whatever they’re calling that BS these days since the actual observations don’t fit with the accepted hysteria.

    The shibboleth of the Three Mile Island so-called “disaster” has been debunked outside the fevered imaginations of the Hollyweird “China Syndrome” mentality long ago. No one died, no one suffered as much as a hair falling out, not among the workers at the plant, nor among any of the citizenry downwind. The amount of radiation exposure suffered by anyone anywhere near there is vastly exceeded by the exposure that millions of commuters get simply by walking through Grand Central Station from natural radiation emanating from the granite.

    But we might as well put a reactor on the moon. By that time, the entire world will be powered by nuclear energy, except for us here in the enlightened US of course, thanks to all the paranoid anti-nuke crazies we have here.

    However, we will be fully powered up by the solar cells covering approx 94.73% of the land mass of the US, except of course, for that land given over to several hundred million windmills. That is, as long as we reduce our population by 90% so as to be able to fit on what land is left, and they all shift to bicycles and pushcarts to power our by then Stone Age economy.

  10. geokstr

    with your comment maybe you can inspire a group of ten year old boy scouts. But take also the Tschernobyl accident into account.

  11. Chernobyl was a catastrophic failure, there is no denying, but, isn’t the whole earth affected by the burning of fossil fuels ? I think a little perspective is in order when jumping to the one and only true catastrophe of nuclear power.

  12. dear alandee,

    I guess you can imagine what damage would be caused when a transport of nuclear material into space would meet with an accident and in sequence the transporter would fall back into the atmosphere. Maybe it would burn up and release a rain of radioactivity on high populated places. The consequences, following those “hours of terror”, would be tremendous.

    We should not clone the confidence (caused by religious irrationality) of the Iranian rulers in their efforts to use nuclear power.

  13. Well, dear dollhopf, we will just have to take our chances, won’t we?

    Yes, Tjernobyl, an inferior design, was provoked into blowing, killed about a fifty people, and will cause, in all, perhaps ten thousand cancer cases. Meanwhile, EVERY DAY, 20,000 die from “ordinary” cancer. Every day, 3000 die in road accidents. But cars are useful, and so is nuclear power. We will all die, but before that, we have to LIVE, and to live, we need to get up every day and risk our lives in doing so, we need energy and we need to do cool, interesting stuff.

    So back off, please. If you need to worry and obsess over something, worry and obsess over the pointless stuff that we know kills many, like tobacco, and leave be the tremendeously useful stuff that may or may not kill a few.

  14. dear jeppen,

    I’m too old to sympathize with anarchistic ideals one more time.

    People can’t drive cars without rules. Don’t forget that if you kill or hurt somebody else with your POV you can go to jail. I, e.g., like to see people in jail which killed innocent others by drunk driving. You are responsible for real others, not simply for an abstraction like “have to LIVE” ( I confess that I hate to live and die by absurd rules 😉

    If we decide that it is worth for us to be killed by cancer, car accident or careless handling of nuclear material so that others may live, if this is all so simple, then I wonder why there are laws and courts of justice and convictions. I guess that you will share my point of view as soon as my nuclear material contaminates your backyard. Some people hate others for less than being venomed by them. Even a different opinion can be enough cause.

    So be careful how you drive, where you smoke your pipe and whom you give an overdose of radiation.

  15. Dear dollhopf, you are fighting straw men. No one advocates nuclear power or driving without rules. But please understand that nuclear and driving also saves lives, and we may easily pass the point where extra rules kill more than they save.

    Nuclear power is actually way past that point, and the culprit seems to be an irrational bias against spectacular accidents. We fear nuclear, when coal and oil kills a tenfold more per TWh, but silently so.

    Let me comment on one of your original arguments regarding rocket accidents: Moderately enriched uranium is not that radioactive, actually. It gets really bad only after some fuel is burnt up, forming more short-lived isotopes. Also, the reactor will be so encased, and the fuel so prepared, that it will in all likelyhood fall in one piece, being easily recovered.

    And no, I won’t agree with you even if my back yard is contaminated.

  16. hello jeppen, let me make something clear, too.

    At no point did I say that I am against the use of nuclear technology. With other words: I do affirm nuclear technology! That is my standpoint in this matter. Is that clear enough for you?


    I tell you that you did in no way perceive and understand the full extend of the Tschernobyl accident. Nor did you understand the sorrow and missery inflicted.

    And, as far as I know, your “optimisitc” approach does not differ so much from the one the operators of reactor # 4 showed. Yes, they followed your standards (you said: “We will all die, but before that, we have to LIVE”) and so the first thing they did in that night was to leave post and evacuate their families! This is the consequence of your phrase. It is opportunism. But hazardous projects require the opposite of opportunism. They require integrity. And reason.

    We also don’t have car accidents because they occure but we be killed in accidents because somebody was careless. Vigilance is highest priority in context with our use of atomic energy, 24 hours at 365.25 days per year. Who does not meet this requirement should not be allowed to administer our nuclear plants.

    Finally, 😉 , people sometimes don’t drive because they need it to survive but simple because they are too fat to walk five hundred yards.

  17. “Oh, please, learn some actual history and stop with the enviro-bias that already pervades this site with respect to Global Warmin…sorry, I mean Climate Change, or whatever they’re calling that BS these days since the actual observations don’t fit with the accepted hysteria.”

    I happen to agree with you wholeheartedly about the ridiculousness of the anti-nuke group.

    It’s completely baseless and in fact the anti-nuclear sentiments have HURT the environment far more than helped it, by forcing us to continue burning fossil fuels for our energy needs.

    But do not confuse bad science from the anti-nuke group with good science from the global warming crowd.

    There is no one, not even the BUSH ADMINISTRATION for the love of Pete, that does not now accept that global warming is a fact.

    It is happening, and it will have serious consequences for us and our descendants. Whether it is caused or made worse by humans is up for debate. Whether it is in fact happening IS NOT.

    There is no lack of consensus in the scientific community. The only people who disagree are politicians, pundits, and idiots.

    The only question in my mind that we need to be focusing on is:

    HOW do we combat the fatal and in many cases irreversible effects of global warming, * before * they become fatal and irreversible?

  18. dollhopf — If in the meantime, before we actually begin sending radioactive materials from Earth to the Moon, we develop space elevators, and therefore, by implication, space tethers, we can get the stuff into space on a space elevator, by rocket to circumlunar orbit, and by a suitable space tether from circumlunar orbit to the Moon’s surface. If the rocket blow up, so what, as far as pollution goes — the stuff onboard is vectored away from the Earth, and you can’t pollute space. Going up from Earth and down to the Moon on space elevators, using equal-load gravity assist to get the package where it’s supposed to go in both cases, the chances of an accident are slim to none, assuming good maintenance and security. (A space elevator is also a great way to get rid of nuclear waste generated on Earth; in that case, aim it at stars so distant it’ll all have turned into lead upon arrival.) So let’s get busy and start creating real-time space elevators.

  19. More and more it looks like the anti-global warming types are just looking for a cat to kick, and think that one is safe. They might want to go down to Southern California and harangue everyone there, especially firefighting crews, about why global warming isn’t real, and those firestorms they’ve been having are just illusions . . . Other people just have to leave their scat anywhere they can, hoping for their 15 seconds of fame. As a D&D gamer friend of mine says, “Don’t feed the troll.” (And the old saying: “It won’t heal if you pick it.”)

  20. Dear Yael Dragwyla,

    This ICBM seems to be appropriate as a transport vehicle for accident-free and thus tolerable deliveries of nuclear material into space.

    According to it is a weapon that has been “shielded against radiation, electromagnetic interference and physical disturbance” and also “is designed to be able to withstand nuclear blasts as close as 500 meters.”

    Presumably the Russians won’t give away this technology for more civilized intentions.

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