NASA funds nuclear power systems for possible use on the Moon

The three companies will demonstrate their potential to power the lunar infrastructure using nuclear fission systems under new joint NASA contracts announced Tuesday (June 21).

NASA and the US Department of Energy have selected three design concept proposals that the government hopes could be ready for use on the Moon by the end of the 2020s to support the space agency’s Artemis lunar exploration program.

NASA also considers these contracts, worth $5 million each, to be potentially useful for exploration of Mars and other destinations in deeper space.

“The development of these early projects will help us lay the groundwork for our long-term human presence on other worlds,” Jim Reuters, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Office of Space Technology, said in a news release from the agency. (will open in a new tab).

On the subject: US military wants to demonstrate new nuclear power systems in space by 2027

Artistic representation of a spacecraft with a nuclear thermal engine.

Artist’s illustration of a nuclear thermal spacecraft, a technology that NASA and the US Department of Defense consider potentially useful for deep space exploration. (Image credit: DARPA)

The selected teams are led by Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse and IX (a joint venture between Intuitive Machines and X-Energy). Their goal over the next 12 months is “to provide NASA with critical industry input that could lead to the joint development of a fully flight-certified fission power system,” the agency said.

These are Phase 1 rewards; NASA did not specify the timing of the Phase 2 contract in the press release, if that is indeed part of the plan.

The recently announced contracts join a rapidly growing group of nuclear space initiatives, mostly in the military field, to further the US government’s work in the field of lunar exploration and deep space exploration in general.

Artist's impression of two spacesuited astronauts working on the Moon.

Artist’s impression of two astronauts working on the Moon during Artemis’ lunar operations. Such operations could be supported by nuclear power later in the 2020s. (Image credit: NASA)

For example, on May 17, the U.S. Defense Innovation Division announced two contracts for prototype nuclear propulsion and spacecraft propulsion systems, aiming to conduct an orbital flight demonstration in 2027.

And on May 4, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced the next phase of a project to design, develop, and assemble a nuclear thermal rocket engine for a demonstration flight to Earth orbit in 2026.

Nuclear thermal rockets like the one in this artwork could halve the travel time to Mars. (Image credit: Pat Rawlings/NASA)

While the US military is doing this work to monitor commercial and government activities in cislunar space, NASA is also considering nuclear capabilities for crewed research.

For example, NASA’s fiscal year 2023 budget request, not yet approved by Congress, includes $15 million. (will open in a new tab) to support nuclear engines. The agency is also collaborating with the DARPA Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, which aims to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion system for use in Earth-to-Moon space.

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