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Gizmodo's NASA Wants to Put a Nuclear Reactor on the Moon begins

NASA is teaming up with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory to develop a non-solar power source on the Moon by the year 2030. But they need some help with the details.

A request for reactor designs on behalf of NASA and a contractor of the DOE is open through mid-February. The request comes on the heels of a reinvigorated lunar program. The Artemis missions will see humans return to the lunar surface for the first time in nearly 50 years. And as human ambition beyond Earth grows, so too do plans for human infrastructure beyond our pale blue dot.

The plan is to assemble the reactor on Earth and then launch it to the Moon. The fundamental requirements for any submitted design are that it be a uranium-fueled reactor with a system that converts nuclear power into energy, have temperature controls to keep the reactor cool (the Moon is frigid at night but can be over 250° Fahrenheit during the day), and have a system that can provide at least 40 kilowatts of continuous power over a decade on the Moon.

It, obviously, needs to be structurally sound enough to survive a launch from Earth and a lunar landing. It must fit inside a 12-foot-wide, 18-foot-long cylinder and weigh less than 13,200 pounds, reports the Associated Press.

I recall NASA's Kilopower project:

Kilopower is an experimental project aimed at producing new nuclear reactors for space travel. The project started in October 2015, led by NASA and the DoE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). As of 2017, the Kilopower reactors were intended to come in four sizes, able to produce from one to ten kilowatts of electrical power (1-10 kWe) continuously for twelve to fifteen years. The fission reactor uses uranium-235 to generate heat that is carried to the Stirling converters with passive sodium heat pipes. In 2018, positive test results for the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) demonstration reactor were announced.

Question: What is the relationship (if any) between NASA's Kilopower project and its request for 40 kW reactor designs?

Is this something that companies like for example Ultrasafe Nuclear Technologies could bid on? Do designs have to avoid duplicating NASA's Kilopower design or are they free to build on it if they like?

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Kilopower is designed for at most 10 kW of power. I asked Patrick McClure, who is the engineer in charge of the Kilopower project at Los Alamos (2019 Humans to Mars summit) if they could scale it up to 100 kW, they suggested that an entirely new design would be preferred if one was going to scale up to that much power. So it seems highly unlikely that Kilopower would be scaled to 40 kW of power, short of having 4 modules of the highest power design.

In general, one is allowed to use NASA patents to build NASA missions, so it should be entirely possible for them to build on that technology if that is the path they want to go. But at least the Kilopower team doesn't seem likely.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 "...short of having 4 modules..." Four Kilopower reactors with the benefits of granularity (you can service one while the other three keep running) seems like an obvious, trivial and great way to get from 10 kW to 40 kW; perhaps 40 kW is the new floor (minimum) and future plans will build on multiple 40+ kW units. Or perhaps getting to 10 kW was never achievable; it wasn't demonstrated to that level, was it? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Nov 22, 2021 at 22:16
  • $\begingroup$ @uhoh In fact, make that 5 for redundancy and capacity reserves. And you are right, the discussion is really surreal ("huh -- yeah, we have 2000mAh battery cells but we can really not scale them up to 10000mAh, that would require a complete redesign" !?) $\endgroup$ Nov 23, 2021 at 9:42
  • $\begingroup$ They could scale the reactor to larger powers, but it is either 4 copies or a redesign to use something a bit more efficient for higher power. Also, Kilopower is primarily a 1 kW system, to extend it to 10 kW is already a stretch. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Nov 23, 2021 at 13:56

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