NASA Plans to Put a Nuclear Reactor on the Moon Within a Decade

If you’ve been sitting on a creative idea for how to build a nuclear power plant on the Moon, NASA and the Department of Energy want you. 

The agencies put out a joint request for proposals (RFP) on Friday for design concepts for a flight-qualified nuclear fission system to power exploration of the Moon’s surface under the Artemis Plan—a lunar exploration program that will send humans back to the Moon, including the first woman and the first person of color, by 2024. The goal of the program is to take what new knowledge and technologies are developed to go back to the Moon and establish a human presence there, and use it to eventually do the same on Mars.

The aim is to create a system that sits on the Moon’s surface and provides the power needed to operate rovers, conduct experiments and turn the water and other resources into life support for astronauts. Whatever is created must operate independently of the sun, and be light enough to be shuttled into space after being built on earth. A contract of up to $5 million is up for grabs for whichever company supplies the best statement of work by the February, 2022 application deadline. According to NASA, it wants the lunar nuclear plant ready for launch “within a decade.”

Nuclear fission—the process through which atoms are split apart, releasing energy from the breaking of bonds that hold a nucleus together—is the power source of choice for this project, which must be able to produce 40 kilowatts of power, enough to sustain 30 households continuously for ten years. The reasoning behind this is three-fold: Nuclear fission systems can operate round-the-clock without reliance on the sun, “in shadowy craters and during the weeks-long lunar nights,” they’re compact, and they’re powerful, the agencies argue in a press release published Friday.

“Plentiful energy will be key to future space exploration,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) said in the press release. “I expect fission surface power systems to greatly benefit our plans for power architectures for the Moon and Mars and even drive innovation for uses here on Earth.”

The project will be managed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland; competing design companies will develop their initial ideas over a 12-month period after applying. Creating a power source on the moon will bring the agencies closer to establishing long-term presence on the moon by the end of the decade, a leapfrog to a longer-term goal of sending people to Mars. 

“We need several years in orbit and on the surface of the Moon to build operational confidence for conducting long-term work and supporting life away from Earth before we can embark on the first multi-year human mission to Mars,” the Artemis Plan reads. “The sooner we get to the Moon, the sooner we get American astronauts to Mars.”

Motherboard reached out to NASA for comment and did not hear back by publication.

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