Could a Nuclear Reactor Be Built in Space?


A nuclear reactor is a device that can start, maintain, and control a nuclear-fission chain reaction to produce heat or beneficial radiation. In a nuclear reactor, energy is created and released by splitting atoms of specific elements. The energy released in a nuclear power reactor is used as heat to create steam, turning it into electricity.

A nuclear reactor's components include:

  • Fuel
  • Moderator control Rod
  • Coolant

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) issued three contracts to some three companies early this year, each for about $5 million, for design ideas for a nuclear fission terrestrial transmission system.

The companies chosen for the contract are the following:

  • Lockheed Martin
  • Westinghouse
  • IX

These companies will partner with other technological entities to achieve their dreams.

Being Used on the Moon

According to NASA, this power system could be used on the Moon before the decade ends. The funds are intended to support the development of basic concepts for a 40kW fission power unit that will function on the Moon for at least ten years. Nuclear fission technologies are excellent for the lunar environment since they are lightweight and relatively tiny. Additionally, they can generate power consistently regardless of sunlight, location, and other environmental factors.

Long-duration expeditions to Mars, the Moon, and other planets will be possible if the technology is successful after the first attempt. Large containment structures house terrestrial nuclear reactors, but the current concept of the nuclear reactor on the Moon doesn't appear to have one because of:

  • The Moon's reactor has containment, though it is much less than required for a reactor on Earth.
  • The lunar reactor is estimated to produce 40 kilowatts, or 0.04 megawatts, of power, compared to a conventional terrestrial nuclear reactor's 1000 megawatts.
  • The containment and shielding structure required for the lunar reactor is small and has less nuclear material than a normal terrestrial reactor.

Safety will be included in every stage of the space nuclear power system's design, testing, production, and operation. Safety is a priority in all NASA operations, whether on Earth or in space. Before deploying the reactor to the Moon, the following should be done to make sure the most challenging obstacles are overcome.

One difficulty is that the rocket phases break after consuming their fuel, which causes intense tremors and shocks throughout the launch and journey towards the Moon. The space reactor must be strong and have a resilient electronic, power transmission, structural, and communication equipment design to perform well in the launch environment.

Running the reactor on the Moon's surface rejects heat produced by the power processing. Air or water-based cooling methods are not as practical on the Moon as they are on Earth. To cool the reactor instead, NASA will use thermal radiators that reject waste heat into space.

Another challenge is running the power plant from 250,000 kilometers away from the Earth. Automated control systems must be developed and tested to guarantee safe operation and defect detection.

These challenges are solvable and will be overcome through detailed design and testing activities. Contrary to popular belief, a nuclear meltdown in space is not likely to occur. This is because the system's normal and abnormal functioning phases must be considered in the controlled trials.

More on the Power System and Control Subsystems

A power system has multiple layers of safeguards that lessen the likelihood of a fault occurring while it is in use and other backup safety measures. The lunar surface fission reactor system is designed to incorporate redundant control methods to find a defect and power off the system well before its operation may become catastrophic.

Control subsystems will have proactive and reactive safeguards to guarantee that the reactor core can be brought down to a subcritical state and that the reactor fuel works at constant temperatures at all times. Unpredictable lunar air temperatures undoubtedly affect how a nuclear reactor is launched, but control measures exist. The system's thermal management architecture considers the changing temperatures on the Moon's surface.

Over the whole range of operational temperatures, waste heat is rejected into space using radiator panels. The thermal radiator panels' dimensions will be chosen to withstand even the harshest lunar conditions. NASA is hoping that the launch of the nuclear reactor to the lunar surface will be successful so that they can launch it on other planets and continue the development on the Moon. The initiative has seen significant financial investment. It requires the dedication of each specialist involved.

Final Thoughts

Everyone can agree that preventing accidents reduces suffering and promotes happiness, but putting safety first implies that it might take a backseat to other considerations like budget or time. Safety is a value and one of the four guiding principles for everything NASA undertakes. The three other values are Integrity, Excellence, and People.

In general, NASA has a superior accident-prevention track record than most other research, development, and exploration organizations. People now have a better grasp of how the environment is changing and what can be done to improve living circumstances, thanks to NASA's focus on making this their goal. They have also launched several successful programs and are still developing more. This has been made possible by innovative technology.

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