NASA is closer than ever to generating nuclear power on the moon 

Three companies just got $5 million each to further develop their mini moon reactors.

NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) have given three companies $5 million each to make it possible to put nuclear power on the moon by 2031 — and potentially provide future Mars colonists with tons of reliable electricity.

The challenge: It’s been 50 years since NASA last sent astronauts to the moon as part of its Apollo missions, and none of those visits lasted more than 12 days.

The moon-based reactor will need to provide 40 kilowatts of power for at least 10 years.

Through its Artemis missions, the agency plans to return humans to the moon as soon as three years from now — 2025. This time, it wants to establish a long-term presence there, so astronauts have plenty of time to explore the lunar surface and conduct research that could one day help us reach Mars.

Astronauts will need a reliable source of power while on the moon, and while solar panels can help meet that need, they won’t work during the long lunar nights or underground — and subterranean lava tubes are among the moon’s most scientifically intriguing features.

Nuclear option: More than a decade before NASA astronauts first set foot on the moon, people here on Earth were building massive power plants that used nuclear fission — the process of splitting atoms to release energy — to generate clean, weather-independent electricity.

Nuclear reactors don’t have to be massive, though. In November 2021, NASA and the DOE solicited proposals from US companies for “mini” reactor concepts theoretically capable of generating nuclear power on the moon. 

The reactors would need to be lightweight and capable of continuously providing astronauts with 40 kilowatts of power — enough for 30 households here on Earth — for 10 years. They would also need to be ready for an actual demonstration on the moon by 2031.

A illustration of a Martian nuclear reactor. Credit: NASA

On July 21, NASA and the DOE announced that they were giving three companies — IX, Westinghouse, and Lockheed Martin — each approximately $5 million to further develop their submitted design concepts over the next 12 months.

“The Fission Surface Power project is a very achievable first step toward the United States establishing nuclear power on the moon,” said John Wagner, director of the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory. “I look forward to seeing what each of these teams will accomplish.”

The big picture: Like so many of NASA’s endeavors, there’s no established blueprint for generating nuclear power on the moon — the agency and its partners will have to learn as they go, and the project could fail at any stage of development.

If it’s a success, though, a moon-based fission reactor could not only give astronauts a way to power their tech on the lunar surface, but also lay the groundwork for generating electricity on Mars and beyond — helping make humanity a multi-world species. 

We’d love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

T-Minus Weekly: NASA’s first asteroid sample, Stoke’s big hop, and more
Freethink’s weekly countdown of the biggest developments in space, featuring NASA’s first asteroid sample, a Curiosity milestone, and more.
NASA has retrieved its first asteroid sample
NASA has just retrieved its first asteroid sample, bringing nearly 9 ounces of the asteroid Bennu to Earth.
Spending time in space can harm the human body − but scientists are working to mitigate these risks before we go to Mars
With NASA planning more missions to space in the future, scientists are studying how to mitigate health hazards that come with space flight.
California utility will try to store renewable energy in iron-flow batteries
A California utility company is testing whether iron-flow batteries could be the answer to the renewable energy storage problem.
T-Minus Weekly: Victus Nox, a record-breaking ISS mission, and more
Freethink’s weekly countdown of the biggest developments in space, featuring the launch of Victus Nox, a record-breaking mission, and more.
Up Next
ev charging network
Subscribe to Freethink for more great stories