Atomic energy could help astronauts survive 336-hour lunar nights

Atomic energy could help astronauts survive 336-hour lunar nights

With help international and commercial partners, NASA is sending astronauts back to the moon for the first time in over 50 years. In addition to sending manned missions to the lunar surface, the long-term goal of the Artemis program is to provide the necessary infrastructure for a “sustainable lunar exploration and development” program.

But unlike the Apollo missions, which sent astronauts to the Moon’s equatorial region, the Artemis program will send astronauts to the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin, culminating in the creation of a habitat (the Artemis Base Camp).

This region contains many permanently shadowed craters and experiences a night cycle lasting 14 days (a “lunar night”). Because solar power will be limited under these conditions, the Artemis astronauts, spacecraft, rovers, and other surface elements will require additional power sources that can operate in crater regions and during the long lunar nights.

In search of possible solutions, the Ohio Aerospace Institute (OAI) and NASA’s Glenn Research Center recently hosted two workshops on nuclear technologies in space aimed at promoting solutions for long-term missions beyond Earth.

Powerful through the lunar eclipse

Lunar vehicles could run on nuclear power when other forms are scarce.NASA

NASA’s Glenn is the home of NASA’s Energy Systems Research, where engineers and technicians work to develop advanced power generation, energy conversion, and storage methods—with applications ranging from solar, thermal, and batteries to radioisotopes, nuclear fission, and regenerative fuel cells . Clevand-based OAI is a not-for-profit research group dedicated to fostering government-industry partnerships to advance aerospace research. The OAI has a long history of working with and contracting with NASA and the DOD.

These workshops were the latest step in the joint development of nuclear technologies for NASA and DOE manned space exploration programs. In terms of propulsion, these efforts aimed to advance proposals for nuclear-thermal and nuclear-electric propulsion (NTP/NEP) systems. In the first case, a nuclear reactor is used to produce propellants such as liquid hydrogen (LH2); In the latter, the reactor generates electricity for a magnetic motor that ionizes an inert gas such as xenon (also known as ion propulsion).

In 2021, NASA and the US Department of Energy (DOE) selected three reactor design proposals for a nuclear thermal system that could send cargo and crews to Mars and scientific missions to the outer solar system. The contracts, each valued at approximately $5 million, were awarded through the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL). In June 2022, they then selected three design concept proposals for a Fission Surface Power (FSB) system that could augment NASA’s Kilopower project and be sent to the moon as a technology demonstration for the Artemis program.

The nuclear technology workshops brought together over 100 engineers, managers and power systems experts from government, industry and academia to discuss topics ranging from fission surface power to nuclear propulsion systems for space. The event was attended by speakers and panelists from NASA, the DOE, the Department of Defense (DOD), and the commercial sector to share knowledge, results, and lessons learned from previous nuclear technology development efforts. Todd Tofil, NASA’s Fission Surface Power project manager, explained in a NASA press release:

“Reliable power is essential for exploration of the Moon and Mars, and nuclear technology can provide robust, reliable power in any environment and location, regardless of available sunlight. As we advance projects like fission surface power and nuclear propulsion, it makes sense to look at the work that has been done in the past at NASA and other agencies to see what we can learn.”

become nuclear

Artist’s rendering of astronauts on the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program.Photo credit: NASA

The first workshop (in November) included discussions on mission requirements requiring nuclear power, such as: B. Long-term missions beyond Earth, where solar power is not always an option. This includes the moon’s south polar region, but also Mars, where increasing distance and periodic dust storms can also limit solar energy.

The workshop also included discussions of test hardware from previous programs that may be relevant to today’s projects. Things ended with a tour of the seven Glenn facilities involved in nuclear research. Said Lee Mason, Vice President of Glenn’s Power Division:

“The workshop provided an excellent opportunity to discuss technological advances and gave the new industry teams an opportunity to learn from the past and build on the established foundation. Close collaboration between industry and government and knowledge sharing will help us succeed in Artemis and missions beyond.”

The second workshop, held in early December, brought together over 500 people from 28 countries (in person and virtually) to discuss how to address the extreme challenges of moonlit night operations. During the three-day workshop, participants learned about relevant developments in this field from energy and thermal technology experts from NASA and other organizations. These included those funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and Exploration System Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD).

Status updates have also been provided by several commercial entities working with NASA through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which will begin providing experiments and technology demonstrations on the lunar surface in early 2023. Most of these missions rely on solar panels or batteries and will face power and heat issues upon landing in the Aitken Basin at the South Pole. Since these systems must remain operational for more than one lunar day (also 14 days), CLPS providers also benefit from advanced energy systems.

As Tibor Kremic, head of the Space Science Project Office at NASA Glenn, summarized:

“The moon is full of extreme conditions, especially during the moonlit night, which we need to prepare for. To do this, we bring together leading experts from NASA, commercial partners, academia and other government agencies to share insights, review technical capabilities and discuss the challenges and solutions ahead. The workshop was a learning experience for all of us, helping to better prepare our CLPS providers and improve our understanding of the various technical possibilities and limitations as we continue to prepare for increasingly ambitious payload deliveries to some of the harshest locations in the solar system. ”

These workshops also build on NASA’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative, which is dedicated to fostering partnerships that result in technologies needed to live and explore on the lunar surface. Specifically, the initiative focuses on technologies that enable in situ resource utilization (ISRU), power generation, lunar dust mitigation, excavation and construction on the lunar surface, exploration of the lunar environment, and other methods that ensure a sustained human presence on the moon for decades to come.

Another long-term goal of the Artemis program is to build the infrastructure and expertise that will enable manned missions to Mars in the early 2030s. This poses even greater challenges ranging from logistics and transportation (durations of up to nine months) to power systems for surface operations. Again, nuclear propulsion (which could reduce transit times to 100 days) and nuclear reactors, which can power surface habitats and vehicles for long-term missions, are in high demand.

This is another example of how this age of renewed space exploration (Space Age 2.0) is driving the development of technologies that have been dreamed of for decades!

This article was originally published on universe today by Matt Williams. Read the original article here.

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