Washington, September 16 : NASA is aiming to power its planned base at the Moon with a nuclear reactor that will be part of a technology development program known as the fission Surface Power Project.
According to a report in Discovery News, the goal of the Fission Surface Power Project, which is based at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, is to produce a non-nuclear prototype unit within five years.
Supported at a cost of about 10 million dollars a year, the project has already awarded two contracts for power conversion units, used to turn the heat of nuclear reactions into electricity.
NASA envisions needing a system capable of providing about 40 kilowatts of electricity - about what's used to power eight average homes in the United States.
It would be launched cold and without radioactive elements until operations were to begin on the lunar surface.
NASA is thinking about burying the system so the lunar soil can serve as shielding.
The converter design by Sunpower Inc., of Athens, Ohio, uses two opposed piston engines coupled to alternators to produce a total of 12 kilowatts of power.
Barber Nichols Inc. of Arvada, Colorado, is developing a closed Brayton cycle engine that uses a high-speed turbine and compressor coupled to a rotary alternator. It also generates 12 kilowatts.
According to project manager Lee Mason, "Our goal is to build a technology demonstration unit with all the major components of a fission surface power system and conduct non-nuclear, integrated system testing in a ground-based space simulation facility."
A space-based reactor would have to be much more compact than fission reactors currently operating on Earth and would generate far less power.
The agency also is looking at solar-powered technologies, fuel cells and other systems.
Among engineers' challenges are the harsh, radioactive environments and the extreme temperature ranges of space.
The moon's 29.5-day rotational period produces long, cold nights lasting 354 hours, which presents a formidable challenge for solar-powered systems.
On Mars, the night-time is just 12 hours, but its distance from sun means only 20 percent of the energy that reaches the moon makes it to Mars.
"As you get further and further out, the missions get longer and longer, and you're going to have to have higher and higher power levels," said John Warren, who oversees the program at NASA headquarters in Washington D.C.
"You're probably going to have to have nuclear, and I think that will be recognized not only here in the US, but around the world," he added.