Sunday, October 04, 2009

NASA Plans Moonbase Nukes for Lunar Explorers

Combining a small nuclear reactor with a Stirling engine power converter would provide lunar explorers with energy throughout the long lunar nights.
"The recent tests bear out that Fission surface power system could be an important source of energy for exploration on the moon and Mars," said Mike Houts, project manager for nuclear systems at Marshall. "This power system could provide an abundant source of reliable, cost-effective energy and may be used anywhere on the lunar surface."

For this particular test series, the Marshall reactor simulator was linked to a Stirling engine, developed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. The Stirling engine, named for 19th-century industrialist and inventor Robert Stirling, converts heat into electricity.

The Marshall reactor simulator included a specialized pump, provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, and a coolant loop filled with a mixture of sodium and potassium. The coolant loop provided heat to the Stirling engine at conditions very similar to an actual fission-based surface power system. The joint testing helped resolve potential integration issues and provided information and experience needed to reduce technology risks associated with this system concept.

The testing of the Stirling engine with the Marshall reactor simulator may well be a key factor in demonstrating the readiness of fission surface power technology, and could provide NASA with an efficient and robust system to produce power in the harsh environment on the moon and Mars. __SD
Of course when the sun is shining on the lunar surface, solar thermal energy (and potentially solar PV energy) is plentiful. Solar thermal energy can drive a Stirling engine as well as heat from a nuclear reactor. But lunar nights are 14 days long, making solar energy unreliable for baseload power on luna without massive amounts of storage.

Not that NASA is likely to take part in much lunar exploration or siting of moonbases. (NASA is too busy promoting catastrophic anthropogenic global warming.) But future moon residents may well be happy that NASA did all of this work in advance for them.



Blogger Loren said...

THe problem with using this in the future is the same as that of using aeronautics technology from 50 years ago. You couldn't resurrect the dinosoar project, because the tooling and production technology, not to mention people who have the information in head, are gone. EMC2 had similar problems with the Bussard reactor, because everyone who had the grasp on the physics required for it was in their 70s at least.

Similarly, if we wait too long for this, about all the project helps us with is to know it's possible, and that it's a worthy investment. Most of the engineering will have to be rediscovered, and the testing and tooling redone. Hopefully though, we'll have better ideas like fusion to use instead.

They were looking at building bases near the poles though, for ice. Build a tall enough tower and put a giant PV panel on top, and you'll not have trouble. Either that, or a ring around the moon at some point. Three or four stations would keep at least one in the light; you'd just have to run power lines.

12:15 PM  
Blogger al fin said...

Loss of expertise over time is a real problem across the board in the technology field.

The best way of circling the moon with solar power plants would involve robotic constructors that used lunar materials to construct the plants, automatically.

I like the idea of seeding a hostile planet such as Luna with nano robots capable of bootstrapping themselves up to large scale mobile constructors. Build a plant, move on to the next site, build another plant, etc.

Build habitats, supplies caches, and a lunar subway system while you are at it.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Loren said...

You don't even need nanites, really. A massive robotic development and exploration operation would have just about everything going good before you even considered sending people. In fact, people would probably be there just to shorten the OODA loop, and to say you did.

One of my interests, which will probably lead to me doing the physics minor that's been proposed, is micro-manufacturing. A reasonably small shop can have all the machines needed to build everything from an Ipod to a semi truck and trailer.

I was looking at cars for a pilot system, but I'm not sure about CNC sheet metal benders that can do the complex shapes. It'd be more expensive to buy things made this way, but they'd be totally custom, and built to last long enough to pay for it.

Basically the same thing on the Moon. A handful of machines could build anything needed, save for some difficult components made on earth. That's all you'd send.

3:00 PM  
Blogger al fin said...

Good luck.

If you send manufacturing machines to the moon, consider having them dig deep caverns to locate the robot shops. Less radiation, and smaller temperature swings. Your machines will appreciate the consideration.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Dennis Farr said...

Another possible, safer, cleaner, cheaper power source for the moon is muon fusion, which doesn't work on earth because muons are expensive to make. On the moon, presumably, they are essentially free as cosmic radiation is abundant on the daylight side at least, and can make muons.

I like the idea of lunar manufactured orbiting or fixed solar power stations much better than blasting anything manufactured on earth up there, let alone a fission reactor. If they are built on the moon, presumably they could also be repaired there, allowing a self-reliant colony to persevere independent of political or natural calamities on the home planet.

9:48 AM  

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