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Living on the moon and Mars will require power. Here's how you'll get it

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NASA
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Fission surface power systems - depicted in this conceptual illustration – could provide reliable power for human exploration of the moon under Artemis (the human space flight program to explore the moon).

The race to the moon is real, with more countries signing on to join NASA’s Artemis mission, and a U.S. official claiming China was planning to take over the heavenly body. China denied the accusation.

But you can’t colonize there without power. NASA has a plan. Its researchers are working with the Department of Energy to create a nuclear fission power station. In June, the space agency chose three companies to draw up preliminary designs.

  • Lockheed Martin with partner with BWXT and Creare
  • Westinghouse will partner with Aerojet Rocketdyne
  • IX (joint venture of Intuitive Machines and X-Energy) will partner with Maxar and Boeing

NASA is no stranger to nuclear energy. It has been part of NASA's portfolio for decades. In fact, radioisotopes power the Mars rovers and Viking probes.

How to build a nuclear fission power station in space?

On Earth, nuclear plants are powered by nuclear fission. That's when a neutron collides with a uranium atom and splits it, producing energy. NASA hopes to use that idea for space colonies. The three companies are designing a fission system for the moon that would create enough power to continuously run 30 households for 10 years.

NASA’s Anthony Calomino is leading the fission technology project and says he doesn’t see the agency continuing to take a lead role. “It would be our desire that it is a commercial capability; that it is not a government capability and that it would be something that would be provided to other entrepreneurial enterprises on the surface of the moon for them to be able to use that power to conduct their own operations.”

NASA has been studying fission systems for 15 years and had a successful test of a fission prototype reactor in 2018. This new system design would be lighter and smaller than nuclear plants on Earth. It has to fit inside a 12-foot-by-18-foot-wide rocket. The power station could be ready to launch by the end of the decade for a demonstration on the moon.

One of the criticisms of nuclear energy is it is expensive to generate. “I think that those costs will continue to come down," Calomino says. "But if the strategy is one that is healthy and robust, the commercial industry will find ways of making that capability cheaper and better.”

Calomino says the fission power station idea could be replicated on Mars but with 10kw instead of 40.

Some people might wonder why NASA isn't using solar. Solar wouldn't work in permanently shadowed regions on the moon and dust storms on Mars.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.