One small step for fission—on the Moon and beyond

July 27, 2020, 12:02PMNuclear News

A reliable energy source is critical for long-duration space exploration. NASA, targeting launch readiness by the end of 2026, has teamed up with the Department of Energy and Idaho National Laboratory to solicit realistic assessments of fission surface power systems designed for deployment on the Moon that could, with little modification, be sent to Mars as well.

This photo of a nearly full moon was taken in December 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission. Photo: NASA

INL takes a lead role: A formal request for information (RFI) on technologies and approaches to test and validate designs for fission surface power systems was announced by Battelle Energy Alliance (BEA), the managing and operating contractor for INL, on July 24. Responses are requested from leaders in the nuclear and space industries by September 8.

“Idaho National Laboratory has a central role in emphasizing the United States’ global leadership in nuclear innovation, with the anticipated demonstration of advanced reactors on the INL site,” said John Wagner, associate laboratory director of INL’s Nuclear Science and Technology Directorate. “The prospect of deploying an advanced reactor to the lunar surface is as exciting as it is challenging, and partnering with the most forward-thinking companies in the private sector and national laboratory system will help us get there.”

Key specs: Goals for the preliminary design include a power output of not less than 10 kW at the interface end of a 1-kilometer cable and a flight system mass of 2,000–3,500 kg. Technology maturity should permit launch readiness of a complete fission surface power flight system no later than December 31, 2026.

RFI respondents are asked to explain their proposed technical approach, including critical technology gaps, the risks and potential of the approach, and anticipated costs and schedules required to develop a test-qualified fission device.

Next steps: Responses to the RFI will inform a subsequent request for proposals for Phase 1 of a two-phase design project. For Phase 1, up to three preliminary designs will be selected for the development of a fission surface power engineering demonstration unit within nine months. As described in the RFI, NASA intends to sponsor a second competitive procurement for Phase II, which would include a final design, along with manufacturing, construction, and ground testing of a prototype unit. Phase II will culminate with delivery of a test-qualified fission surface power flight system to the launch site for deployment to the Moon.

NASA, the DOE, and BEA plan to host an "Industry Day” in August to communicate the expectations of the program from design to deployment.

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