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Moon Space NASA Power Science

NASA Developing Small Nuclear Reactor For the Moon 431

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the because-they're-nasa dept.
marshotel writes "NASA astronauts will need power sources when they return to the moon and establish a lunar outpost. NASA engineers are exploring the possibility of nuclear fission to provide the necessary power, and they are taking initial steps toward a non-nuclear technology demonstration of this type of system."
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NASA Developing Small Nuclear Reactor For the Moon

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  • by Schnoogs (1087081) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:18AM (#24961725)
    ...GreenPeace launch their intergalactic spaceship to intercept NASA in orbit and all of the zero-g protesters.
  • by HungryHobo (1314109) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:18AM (#24961735)

    Unless the NIMBY crowd change to NIMOrbit

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Hub_City (106665)

      Cmon, you never saw Space: 1999? It's a disaster in the making!

      (On the other hand, there's Catherine Schell...)

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by MindKata (957167)
        "Space: 1999? It's a disaster in the making"

        The episode (and book) was called "Breakaway" ... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breakaway_(Space:_1999) [wikipedia.org] ... Safety is a good point, as the safety of this nuclear fission power station does seem to a big issue. Also if it fails and just needs replacing, (or servicing) its a major issue.

        I would have thought Solar power would have been a better idea. There's many reasons for Solar, not least of which, if some panels fail, then others will still keep working, so it
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Azaril (1046456)
      To me it almost seems a bigger problem.

      If we assume that at some point were going to want to use the majority of the moon for something, be it rocket launches, mining, science experiments etc, we probably dont want amount of waste sitting around, either to prevent radioactive contamination, or if we populate the earth, the wrong hands being laid on it. On the other hand, to bury it to a reasonable degree would require a considerable amount of machinery which would be extremly costly to ship to the moon.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by HungryHobo (1314109)

        thing is that it's the moon, there's no rain, no wind, no groundwater.
        no need to bury it.
        just find a crater a little out of the way and make it into a big pile.

        If in future the prospect if the land being needed comes up then you just load it up into a truck and deal with it properly since that that point there would likely be more machinery around.

        Hell,the place is already radioactive.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by FooAtWFU (699187)

        Remember, though, this is the Moon. Unlike on the Earth, the waste isn't going to be blown around by the wind or leached out by groundwater and carried into drinking water supplies. There's not going to be some giant moonquake to destroy the structural integrity of the disposal site. Your biggest risk is being at the center of a new crater, and that's kinda low.

        So give a guy a shovel - or whatever they'll be using to dig foundations for the lunar base - and put it in a hole a few feet deep, stick up a si

      • You do realise there is more land area on the moon than on earth? Plenty of space to leave things for a good time. If we get to the stage where the moon is getting full then we must have industry and living at least on the same scale as we have on earth, so burying the reactor shouldn't be a problem.

      • by Vexar (664860)
        You've obviously not been on the moon before. The radiation is pretty bad up there. I suppose you are going to tell us we need to use wind or hydro power on the moon, then? Oh, wait, solar. yeah, that leaves half of the planet off-limits. Also, launching something the size of an office trashcan, versus an array of solar panels 45'x45', all of which are susceptible to micrometeorite and radiation damage. So what does that leave you? Hamster wheels? I can just see their spacesuits.
      • So in a choice between a radioactive landfill site on what could prove to be useful land or dragging digging machinery to the moon with the reactor, it doesnt seem to me to be particularly easy.

        You're needlessly concerned, methinks. The moon has a surface area of 37,930,000 km. NONE of that space is covered by large bodies of water. The amount of land on earth is 148,940,000 km. That gives the moon about 25% of the useful land that earth has. That's quite a bit!

        Now consider the cost of developing the entire

  • Dupe! (Score:5, Funny)

    by PinkyDead (862370) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:20AM (#24961765) Journal

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space:_1999 [wikipedia.org]

    Asking for trouble... 'cos this didn't work out too well for Moonbase Alpha.

  • by Spazztastic (814296) <spazztastic@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:22AM (#24961791)
    Now to implement The Alan Parsons Project!
  • Umm, water? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by s31523 (926314) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:24AM (#24961821)
    Don't you need water to make electricity with a nuclear reactor, and also to cool the core?
    • Re:Umm, water? (Score:5, Informative)

      by e2d2 (115622) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:30AM (#24961897)

      I think it depends on the reactor type. Some can use liquid sodium, etc. Think "micro-reactor" similar to the proposals by the Japanese space program or Toshiba for small output, "4S":

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toshiba_4S [wikipedia.org]

      • Speaking of reactor type, what the hell is a "fission surface power system", a google search that excludes "NASA" is not helpful. Is it another phrase for a pebble bed reactor? - I belive they can be made to arbritrary sizes but I'm no certainly no expert. Do pebble beds require a constant supply of coolant or can the coolant be in a closed loop?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by mea37 (1201159)

      That's how it's done normally, yes; and I assume this reactor will work that way (although I suppose capturing thermal energy and cooling the core are both tasks for which you could design a water-free approach if you wanted to).

      Now, if only we had a way to transport a necessary material from here to the moon... but alas, we'll have to build the reactor entirely using materials already there...

      (Ok, well, I think I'm funny anyway...)

      FWIW, I'm pretty sure you could send a finite amount of water and just keep

      • by g0dsp33d (849253)
        It would be interesting to see if they could use the peltier effect to help cool it and add extra juice. I guess they would probably go for less efficient designs that weigh less though.

        "That's no moon".
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by mapsjanhere (1130359)
          That's actually exactly what they are doing for micro-reactors. They are not classic mechanical "liquid+heat->steam->liquid+electricity set-up but strait heat->electricity via thermoelectric elements.
    • by explosivejared (1186049) <hagan.jared@gmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:30AM (#24961907)
      A little known fact, there is no China on the moon. Therefore, you do not have to worry about the China Syndrome [wikipedia.org]. You can run a nuclear reactor any way you want.
    • by evilviper (135110)

      Don't you need water to make electricity with a nuclear reactor, and also to cool the core?

      The core needs to be cooled, but there is absolutely no reason water inherently needs to be used for that purpose. It just happens to be sufficiently cheap and abundant here on Earth that we use it.

    • by kvezach (1199717)
      Liquid sodium [wikipedia.org], lead [wikipedia.org] or molten salts [wikipedia.org] can also work. Or take some of that Helium on the moon and run a gas-cooled reactor [wikipedia.org].
  • Send Homer. (Score:5, Funny)

    by Verdatum (1257828) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:24AM (#24961823)
    Nuclear technician, spaceflight experience. Not as proficient as the inanimate carbon rod, but who is?
  • I often asked why we can't dump our waste into space ala Superman IV [wikipedia.org].

    The response is usually "Oh won't somebody think of the children if one rocket ever dropped!".

    But apparently we can send it to the moon safely?

    Could somebody, who perhaps knows more about the difference between uranium before and after it has been used, enlighten me as to why this would be safer?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      well, if the moon (and all of its nuclear waste) falls onto the earth, I'm pretty sure the radioactive bits won't be the first thing on people's minds.

    • by evilviper (135110) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:34AM (#24961981) Journal

      Getting anything into space, and all the way out of earth orbit, is monumentally EXPENSIVE.

      Digging a big hole in the ground is monumentally CHEAP (at least in relative terms).

      The people you've heard from, that are scared of sending radioactive material into space, are monumentally STUPID.

      Also, fissile nuclear material is a highly valuable, relatively scarce, and non-renewable resource. It's more than likely that we'll need to dig that stuff up again in a century, and reprocess it. Quite a bit harder to do so if it's on it's way to Pluto.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        Quite a bit harder to do so if it's on it's way to Pluto.

        Why would they want to send it to Pluto? It's a Mickey Mouse planet!

    • Volume (Score:5, Informative)

      by tpjunkie (911544) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:37AM (#24962039) Journal

      A 40kw reactor like they discuss in the article would use a small amount of uranium, probably less volume of radioactive material than used for the RTGs in the cassini probe. Whereas we have tons and tons of nuclear waste to dispose of, not just spent fuel rods, but reactor internals, coolant, and so on.

    • by ivan256 (17499)

      It's not safer. It's equally as safe. I assume they're planning on ignoring the people who have the typical response, and instead trust that they've properly engineered their containment devices to properly withstand the launch vehicle blowing up.

      Think of the data. Thinking of the children makes people irrational.

    • by Neil Watson (60859) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:53AM (#24962329) Homepage

      Nuclear waste is not really waste. It simply needs to be used in a different reactor. Storing this waste and doing nothing with it is really a waste.

    • by Vexar (664860)
      Used Uranium is lead or something else. If it is still radioactive, you can still use it to run a different power plant, affectionately referred to as the nuclear fuel cycle. A breeder reactor "breeds" radioactive material, so rather than going down from Uranium to Lead, you go up from Uranium to Plutonium. I'm over-simplifying, because the process involves more elements, isotopes, and so forth, but if this interests you, I know you'll go get yourself a decent book on the subject (get the old ones, the n
    • by Nadaka (224565) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @11:42AM (#24963295)

      Because it is a horrifically bad idea.

      Nuclear waste is not waste, it is nuclear fuel that has been partially used, but still retains 90% or so of its functionality. Using feeder breeder reactors we could easily reprocess this "waste" while generating close to 10 times the energy of a standard nuclear reactor (for the same amount of fuel) while producing waste that is only potentially dangerous for a few hundred years, vs potentially thousands of years.

      The only problem is that people are dumb. And the idea of building anything nuclear (pronounced Nook you ler) invokes the same kind of response as declaring that you worship satan in a southern baptist church.

  • Not solar? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tygerstripes (832644) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:26AM (#24961829)

    I'm hoping someone can explain to me why the far better-established and easily-maintained option of Solar Power isn't first on the list.

    I mean: negligible atmosphere, established support-structure (the ground), 100% predictable yield, negligible material costs after setup, and land-area isn't such a big issue... can't really think of a better case for it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Lando242 (1322757)
      How much would a solar array weigh that generated as much power as a small nuclear reactor? How much space would it take up on the craft vs same reactor? I don't know the answers but these are two questions that come to mind right off.
      • Good questions, I agree. Still, solar generation requires no additional material once it's going - how often would you have to supply fissile material to a fusion reactor? What if the launch is delayed/fails? Does that mean a moon-base full of people with bad haircuts and skin-tight body-suits will freeze to death? You could keep shipping solar arrays up along with the rest of the constructions, such that energy supply scales permanently with demand.

        I appreciate there are issues with solar, but aren't they

        • by Tx (96709)

          how often would you have to supply fissile material to a fusion reactor?

          Not very often, we'll probably be mining the moon for Helium-3 for our fusion reactors on earth in the future. But for now, we're talking about fission ;).

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by R2.0 (532027)

          "how often would you have to supply fissile material to a fusion reactor?"

          I think you are missing a sense of scale. Nuclear fuel is INCREDIBLY energy dense. Commercial reactors refuel about a third of their rods every 18 months (I think - it's been a while since I worked at a plant), and that is after running balls to the wall, 24/7, at full output, which is up around 1000 MEGAwatts. Navy ships refuel only after YEARS of operation, and a carrier sucks up WAY more energy than a moon base would.

          I imagine a

        • Re:Not solar? (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Aglassis (10161) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @11:38AM (#24963203)

          A 40 KW nuclear reactor is about the tiniest nuclear reactor imaginable. I'm sure NASA isn't considering it because of its power density or its mass. Each one of the solar panel assemblies on the ISS could potentially generate 32 KW. The problem is the 28 day lunar 'day.' Solar power plants on the moon will see a significant drop in power during the lunar night (about 100% of rated power at most locations except perhaps the poles). Therefore, long duration missions would require batteries. Supplying 40 KW for 14 days would require massive batteries (and also more than 80 KW of solar arrays). Based on my back of the envelope calculations, you would need something about 3 times the size of the Fairbanks Battery Backup [wired.com]. Additionally, nuclear power is more scalable. Knowledge gained with operating tiny nuclear reactors on the Moon could also be used with larger reactors that far outstrip any potential competition by solar power.

        • Re:Not solar? (Score:4, Informative)

          by Vexar (664860) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @11:39AM (#24963229) Homepage Journal
          Astronauts wear bulky, air-tight radiation/heating suits. I'm sure they won't engage the control rods until they are on "Luna Firma." Besides, it isn't like they are going to be sitting in that launch tower for weeks on end. If they use sodium, lead, or tungsten in its construction, it should be fairly shielded given the small amount of material involved. If it is lead-cooled, you are in great shape, because the coolant mass is also going to shield that gamma radiation pretty well with lead. My guess is that the new space suits will use Demron (invented by a freakin' Dentist, of all people).

          As for the reactor life, I'm betting 10-30 years with the included fuel, and it is probably not meant to be serviceable. I get the feeling those who don't know much about nuclear reactors think that there are these big, daily freight trains, like with coal plants, but full of uranium. Fact is, nuclear power isn't all that resource-intensive.

        • Re:Not solar? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by RockClimbingFool (692426) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @11:58AM (#24963589)

          Solar cells don't last forever.

          In a space environment, I believe the power output from them drops by 5% every year. Solar cells on earth don't degrade that quickly because they aren't exposed to the same amount of radiation.

          Also, once the solar cells have degraded, thats it. You can't repair them, they must be replaced. A nuclear reactor could have new shipments of fuel sent up.

      • by ckaminski (82854)
        Nevermind the fact that with your moon-based solar array, you'll be in near or absolute darkness for 10-14 days at a time, generating -ZERO- power. :-) So take that estimate of yours, double it, and add in 1,000 miles of power cable.
    • Re:Not solar? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by evilviper (135110) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:37AM (#24962035) Journal

      I'm hoping someone can explain to me why the far better-established and easily-maintained option of Solar Power isn't first on the list.

      I'm hoping people will RTFA before asking stupid question...

      Returning to the moon is a dry-run for going to Mars. Mars is further away from the sun, and has lots of nasty dust storms.

    • Re:Not solar? (Score:5, Informative)

      by actionbastard (1206160) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:37AM (#24962045)
      Except for the fact that it would be dark at your moonbase for nearly two straight weeks at a time, solar power would be great.
    • Re:Not solar? (Score:5, Informative)

      by delt0r (999393) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:40AM (#24962085)
      Night time on the moon is kinda long (weeks). What do you do then? Batteries that can store weeks worth and PV arrays that run at over 2x capacity are not really going to work all that well. Well not as well as a 24/7 nuke plant.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by SilentBob0727 (974090)

        Night time on the moon is kinda long (weeks). What do you do then?

        Really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really long wires.

      • by Thelasko (1196535)

        Night time on the moon is kinda long (weeks). What do you do then?

        Yup, but I thought that was why NASA was planning on setting up the moon base on one of the poles.

    • Re:Not solar? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Dan East (318230) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:40AM (#24962089) Homepage Journal

      The ISS has an acre of solar panels, and they can be designed incredibly light-weight because they are in microgravity. Panels on the moon would require vastly more infrastructure to support them, which would increase the weight and bulk considerably.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by evanbd (210358)

        Attach a plow blade to the moon rover, make a flat area, and carefully lay out the ultra thin and fragile panels? It's not like they're going to get blown away by wind, and I'd be willing to bet the astronauts can be trained to respect the "don't walk on solar farm" signs.

        I think the problem has more to do with nighttime energy and installation effort than it does with mass or fragility. Even with high power light weight reactors, panels would be lighter per watt generated. It's only as you head out beyo

    • by Nymz (905908)

      I'm hoping someone can explain to me why the far better-established and easily-maintained option of Solar Power isn't first on the list.

      I mean: negligible atmosphere, established support-structure (the ground), 100% predictable yield, negligible material costs after setup, and land-area isn't such a big issue... can't really think of a better case for it.

      You answered your own question by acknowledging the source of power with the words "after setup". I think it's safe to assume that NASA plans to use that power source to do a bit of "setup" themselves. Pandering is only a source of power for politicians.

    • by onion2k (203094)

      I can think of a least three possible reasons - cost, size, and maintainance. It's possible that solar would simply cost too much to develop something that can generate enough power for a moonbase. Related to that, it's possible that the size of solar panels you'd need would be too big to get on to the moon. Lastly there's the question of maintainance; moondust would kill the productivity of a panel. Astronauts roaming around, landers delivering things, and meteor strikes could potentially throw up enough d

    • by jonatha (204526)

      With very few exceptions, any place on the moon you put your solar power station will be in the dark two weeks out of every month.

    • by Tumbleweed (3706) *

      I'm hoping someone can explain to me why the far better-established and easily-maintained option of Solar Power isn't first on the list.

      Okay, genius, what do the astronauts do when there's a cloudy day on the Moon?

      Sheesh. You should really think about these things before you post.

    • 14 days of darkness. 14 days of light. That is a lot of heavy batteries to send into space.
      Vs. Earth 12 hours of darkness and 12 hours of light (average)

      Why do you assume they can't use both? Why doesn't anyone assume that there could be a slew of power sources that can be used. Having Nuclear Energy doesn't mean we can't have Wind or Solar (on earth). Some places are not conducive for Wind or Solar so Nuclear is a good option. All those Nuclear Energy opponents seem to thing if we give Nuclear a green ligh

    • by Vexar (664860)
      Do the math on 14KW. Also, don't forget it has to fit inside what amounts to an 8x8 cubicle. I say the atomic waste can fits better. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the space required for the array to yield 12 Kw is 45' by 45'. Perhaps less mass than the atomic waste can, but certainly not less volume!!! Besides, those cells are fragile like eggshells and require careful packing and engineering. When people's lives are at stake, they need something that is reliable and simple. Space p
  • Maybe this is just a tad obvious to me, but surely being on the moon and without having that pesky earth atmosphere getting in the way, Solar power would be a better choice?

    I know they're not very efficient and all, but satellites have been using solar power for years and it's not like the Moon is lacking the space for it. Hell, you don't even have to deal with things like leaves, rain and such getting in the way - there's no bloody wind on the moon.

    • 14-day nights (Score:3, Informative)

      by peter303 (12292)
      You'd need a great battery technology to survive a two week night. Split hydrogen for fuel cells?
    • by Pitr (33016)

      I was thinking the same thing, then I thought of some reasons why it might not work.

      First, there's still meteorites and such which could potentially be much more damaging than the elements on earth. You've seen pictures of the moon's surface. Imagine really bad hail all the time.

      Then there's the fact that you won't always have exposure to the sun wherever your moon base is. I don't know what the longest period of "night" is on the various parts of the moon, but I'm sure it's significant to the point that

  • you have to be a lunatic to put fission on the moon. it seems once a month i encounter some sort of hairbraned scheme like this. i wish there were a silver bullet solution to these sort of moonbat ideas

  • by Intron (870560) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:30AM (#24961909)
    Why not just buy one from the Russians? They've been using them for 30 years.
    • by evilviper (135110)

      Why not just buy one from the Russians?

      Russian space technology tend to be simple, inefficient, based on the oldest technology they can get away with, and remains unchanged pretty much as long as they aren't forced to improve it.

      Russian tech is really the complete polar opposite of NASA tech, so such exchanges very rarely work out.

  • They relay useing NAQUADAH REACTORs and just saying nuclear as a cover up also Homer Simpson will be on the mission.

  • Nuke the moon! [thoseshirts.com]
  • by Simonetta (207550) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @10:59AM (#24962451)

    Please allow me to inject a note of reality here.

    There is a serious possibility that the Americans will not be establishing a lunar base in the next twenty years. Regardless of the technology or science available.

    The problem is one of money. Basically the US government is broke. It runs huge deficits. This didn't make any difference in the past when there was no other place but America for super-wealthy people and governments to put their money. That has changed.

    What has also changed is that oil has gotten incredibly expensive. Cheap oil allows the economy to grow. A growing economy allows huge expensive social programs like pensions and medical care to people over 60, moon projects, massive government bureaus, and permanent endless war on the other side of the world.

    When the economy stops growing, house prices stop rising, and the sources of easy credit dry up, serious choices have to be made. Everything can't be afforded: some things must be abandoned. This is reality in 2008. It's not 1967 anymore.

    The moon projects are easy targets. Although these projects are popular among the young and educated, these projects are expendable. There are no voters on the moon. There's no oil there. There's no one there who can be shaken down with atomic bombs to be persuaded to buy USA Treasury bonds to finance the endless deficits.

    It's easy for the NASA administrators to hold press conferences and announce grandiose plans. It's easy to put big budget programs into future federal budget projections. But the coming years, when the true extent of the bankruptcy of the US government becomes apparent, these space programs might be quietly dropped. This is reality of the 21st century. Again, it's not 1967 anymore.

  • by Surt (22457) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:14PM (#24963847) Homepage Journal

    Do we really want them to have access to nuclear power? On the other hand, the theme park does have a lot of lights.

  • Why NASA? (Score:3, Funny)

    by trongey (21550) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:42PM (#24964371) Homepage

    Why does NASA have to do this for the moon. Why doesn't the moon just develop it's own nuclear reactor if it wants one? It's not like NASA has extra money and resources to be doing every other planet's work.

  • Perfect place... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Muad'Dave (255648) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:55PM (#24964599) Homepage

    ... to test a Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor [wikipedia.org]. No oxygen to support combustion of the liquid sodium, and high efficiency so that you don't have to refuel it as often.

    I'd love for us to use these [nationalcenter.org] here on Earth, but there's still too much flat-out wrong information floating around for them to be accepted.

  • by Ancient_Hacker (751168) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @02:17PM (#24966073)

    Eh, any idea how they'd cool the thing? It's fine to split atoms to make heat, but on the Moon you need to have a closed-loop cooling system. So you have to cool off the turbine exhaust so you can feed it back into the reactor. Problem-- no atmosphere and no lakes or rivers to carry away the heat. No groundwater either. Many many many meters of loose insulating moon-dust and rock fragments before you get down to bedrock, which in itself is not all that great at conducting away heat.

    Methinks the Moon is not a great place to be running a reactor or power plant of the heat-cycle variety. Maybe solar cells.

    • Uhh, big heatsink? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by JSBiff (87824)

      Can't heat radiate directly into space? I dunno if there are any materials that currently do this efficiently.

      Could the heat be recycled somehow? Seems to me if you are dumping heat out of the system, you are dumping *energy* out of the system?

      Take some of the excess heat and use it for environmental heating of human dwellings/workspaces, hot water for showers (could a shower be invented which works well on the moon? dunno), cooking, etc? (Granted, there's probably more 'waste heat' than you would need for

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