Final design to be chosen in 2025, says agency
US Space agency Nasa said it is extending contracts under Phase 1 of an ambitious project to develop a small, power-generating nuclear fission reactor that could potentially be deployed as a demonstrator on the Moon.
Under its Fission Surface Power Project, Nasa awarded in 2022 three $5m (€4.65bn) contracts tasking partners with developing an initial design that included a reactor with an output of up to 40 kW and weight of maximum six tonnes, its power conversion, heat rejection, power management and distribution systems. The contracts also included cost estimations, and a development schedule that could pave the way for powering a sustained human presence on the Moon for at least 10 years.
Nasa said at the time that the projects also had to show envisioned how the reactor would be remotely powered on and controlled, including a decade of operation without human intervention.
The agency said the projects identified potential faults and considered different types of fuels and configurations.
“Having terrestrial nuclear companies paired with companies with expertise in space made for a wide range of ideas,” said Nasa last week.
Nasa said it decided to extend the three Phase 1 contracts in order to collect more information before the start of Phase 2 of its project when industry will be contracted to design the final reactor to demonstrate on the Moon.
This additional knowledge will help the agency set the Phase 2 requirements, said Lindsay Kaldon, Fission Surface Power project manager at Nasa’s Glenn research centre in Cleveland.
“We’re getting a lot of information from the three partners,” Kaldon said. “We’ll have to take some time to process it all and see what makes sense going into Phase 2 and levy the best out of Phase 1 to set requirements to design a lower-risk system moving forward.”
Nasa has scheduled the start of Phase 2 of its Fission Surface Power Project for 2025, with an actual deployment for the demonstrator earmarked for the early 2030s.
According to the agency, the reactor will complete a one-year demonstration followed by nine operational years and if successful, the design may be updated for potential use on Mars.
The three companies which received Phase 1 contracts in 2022 were: Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse Electric Company; Maryland-based Lockheed Martin; and Texas-based X, a joint venture of Intuitive Machines and X-Energy.
According to Nasa, fission systems, which are relatively small and lightweight compared to other power systems, could enable continuous power regardless of location, available sunlight, and other environmental conditions.