For space agencies and the commercial space industry, the priorities of the next two decades are clear. First, astronauts will be sent to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era, followed by the creation of permanent infrastructure that will allow them to say there for extended periods. Then, the first crewed missions will be sent to Mars, with follow-up missions every 26 months, culminating in the creation of surface habitats (and maybe a permanent base). To meet these objectives, space agencies are investigating next-generation propulsion, power, and life support systems.
This includes solar-electric propulsion (SEP), where solar energy is used to power extremely fuel-efficient Hall-Effect thrusters. Similarly, they are looking into nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) and compact nuclear reactors, allowing for shorter transit times and providing a steady power supply for Lunar and Martian habitats. Beyond NASA, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) has partnered with Rolls-Royce to develop nuclear systems for space exploration. In a recent tweet, the international auto and aerospace giant provided a teaser of what their “micro-reactor” will look like.
With the help of international and commercial partners, NASA is sending astronauts back to the Moon for the first time in over fifty years. In addition to sending crewed missions to the lunar surface, the long-term objective of the Artemis Program is to create the necessary infrastructure for a program of “sustained lunar exploration and development.” But unlike the Apollo missions that sent astronauts to the equatorial region of the Moon, the Artemis Program will send astronauts to the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin, culminating in the creation of a habitat (the Artemis Basecamp).
This region contains many permanently-shadowed craters and experiences a night cycle that lasts fourteen days (a “Lunar Night“). Since solar energy will be limited in these conditions, the Artemis astronauts, spacecraft, rovers, and other surface elements will require additional power sources that can operate in cratered regions and during the long lunar nights. Looking for potential solutions, the Ohio Aerospace Institute (OAI) and the NASA Glenn Research Center recently hosted two space nuclear technologies workshops designed to foster solutions for long-duration missions away from Earth.
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.
Over the next fifteen years, multiple space agencies and their commercial partners intend to mount crewed missions to the Moon and Mars. In addition to placing “footprints and flags” on these celestial bodies, there are plans to establish the infrastructure to allow for a long-term human presence. To meet these mission requirements and ensure astronaut safety, several technologies are currently being researched and developed.
At their core, these technologies are all about achieving self-sufficiency in terms of resources, materials, and energy. To ensure that these missions have all the energy they need to conduct operations, NASA is developing a Fission Surface Power (FSP) system that will provide a safe, efficient, and reliable electricity supply. In conjunction with solar cells, batteries, and fuel cells, this technology will allow for long-term missions to the Moon and Mars in the near future.
The number of protons defines an element, but the number of neutrons can vary. We call these different flavors of an element isotopes, and use these isotopes to solve some challenging mysteries in physics and astronomy. Some isotopes occur naturally, and others need to be made in nuclear reactors and particle accelerators.