INL Requests Partners to Develop Nuclear Reactors to Use on the Moon and Mars

  • Idaho National Laboratory Issues RFI for Nuclear Power Systems for Moon and Mars
  • NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover Gets its Nuclear Power source for a July 30 Launch
  • Senate Passes Nuclear Energy Leadership Act In Defense Authorization Bill

The Battelle Energy Alliance, LLC (BEA), the managing and operating contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL), is seeking information from firms in the nuclear and space industries to develop innovative technologies for a fission surface power (FSP) system that can be operated on the moon.

Link: Detail technical requirements and contracting information here

Responses are sought by Sept. 8. After receiving responses, INL will issue a request for proposal. For more information on the RFI, interested parties may contact Aaron Weston at aaron.weston@inl.gov 

Sponsored by NASA in collaboration with the Department of the Energy and INL, the request for information seeks partnership on technologies and approaches to test and validate an FSP design that can be built and deployed on the moon, and used for subsequent missions such as to Mars.

INL_Map_facility_home_thumb.png

Map of the Major Facilities of the INL located about 40 miles west of Idaho Falls, ID. 43:35N;112:39W more or less. The Materials Fuels Complex, formerly Argonne West, is the site where the work is done on nuclear power systems for space.

The Energy Department said the reactor is intended to support exploration in the south polar region of the moon. Ice has been detected in the craters at the Moon’s south pole which could be used for a variety of purposes by astronauts. The agency said a specific region on the Martian surface for exploration has not yet been identified.

“Small nuclear reactors can provide the power capability necessary for space exploration missions of interest to the Federal government,” the Energy Department wrote in the notice published this week.

“Idaho National Laboratory has a central role in emphasizing the United States’ global leadership in nuclear innovation, with the anticipated demonstration of advanced reactors on the INL Site,” said Dr. John Wagner, associate laboratory director of INL’s Nuclear Science & Technology Directorate.

“The prospect of deploying an advanced reactor to the lunar surface is as exciting as it is challenging, and partnering with the most forward-thinking companies in the private sector and national laboratory system will help us get there.”

The plan has two phases. The first is developing a reactor design. The second is building a test reactor, a second reactor be sent to the moon, and developing a flight system and lander that can transport the reactor to the moon. The goal is to have a reactor, flight system and lander ready to go by the end of 2026.

The reactor must be able to generate an uninterrupted electricity output of at least 10 kilowatts. The Energy Department said it would likely take multiple linked reactors to meet power needs on the moon or Mars.

In addition, the reactor cannot weigh more than 7,700 pounds (3,500 kilograms), be able to operate in space, operate mostly autonomously, and run for at least 10 years.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover Gets its Nuclear Power Source
for a July 30 Launch

(Space.com) The installation of the power system is a vital step toward liftoff for the rover, which will rely a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG), to keep its instruments running and to stay warm during the cold Martian nights and winters. The United Launch Alliance, which is responsible for launching Perseverance on its way next Thursday (July 30) made the announcement.

In a statement to the media, a spokesman for the launch contractor said, “The Mars Perseverance MMRTG is installed and doing well. This Red Planet dune buggy is fueled and ready to go!”

The MMRTG is designed to power the rover for up to 14 years, which is far beyond the $2.7 billion spacecraft’s initial mission lifetime of nearly two Earth years, or one Martian year. It is based on the system that powers NASA’s Curiosity rover, which launched in 2011 and has been roving the Red Planet since August 2012.

The nuclear power pack can produce about 110 watts of power, according to NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE). The MMRTG contains radioactive plutonium (PU-238), which naturally decays into more stable atoms. As it does so, it releases heat, which the MMRTG converts into electricity. Excess heat keeps a spacecraft’s instruments warm on cold Martian nights so it can keep working.”

DOE and NASA point out that for Mars missions, MMRTGs offer a key benefit. Unlike solar panels, they aren’t affected by local weather, which means a spacecraft that carries one isn’t vulnerable to dust storms which can cover the solar cells.

Another MMRTG is scheduled to power NASA’s Dragonfly mission, a rotorcraft designed to explore the hazy skies of Saturn’s massive moon Titan in 2026.

About the Spacecraft

mars perseverence

NASA Mars Perseverence Rover & Ingenuity Helicopter.  Image: NASA/Cal Tech

In February 2021, NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover and NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter (shown in an artist’s concept) will be the agency’s two newest explorers that will land on Mars. Both were named by students as part of an essay contest.

Perseverance is the most sophisticated rover NASA has ever sent to Mars. Ingenuity, a technology experiment, will be the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet. Perseverance will arrive at Mars’ Jezero Crater with Ingenuity attached to its belly.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory built and will manage operations of Perseverance and Ingenuity for the agency. Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission, go to: https://mars.nasa.gov/perseverance

For more information about Ingenuity, go to: https://mars.nasa.gov/technology/helicopter

Senate Passes Nuclear Energy Leadership Act In Defense Authorization Bill

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, thanked her colleagues for supporting the inclusion of S. 903, her Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA), in S. 4049, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021. The Senate today passed the NDAA bill, with NELA incorporated by amendment, by a vote of 86 to 14 this week. Murkowski is Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

NELA aims to reestablish U.S. leadership in nuclear energy. The bill focuses the Department of Energy on demonstrating advanced reactor concepts, providing fuel for initial advanced nuclear reactors, and developing the nuclear energy workforce. The advanced reactors supported by NELA have significant potential to provide safe, clean, reliable, and affordable energy to installations such as military bases, remote communities in states like Alaska, and to larger towns and cities across the country.

“For too long, the United States has lagged woefully behind on innovative nuclear energy technologies, which comes at great cost to our economy, our global leadership, and the environment,” Murkowski said.

“The Department of Defense is a logical first customer for advanced reactors, especially the microreactors currently under development, which can be deployed to remote regions. Nuclear energy can also provide safe, clean, and affordable power to homes, schools, and businesses that traditionally rely on more costly energy sources.”

Murkowski and Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J., led a bipartisan group of 20 Senators last month in sending a letter to urge the inclusion of NELA in NDAA, based in part on nuclear energy’s contribution to national security.

When floor debate began on NDAA, Murkowski and Booker introduced Amendment #2012, containing the text of NELA, along with 15 additional Senators: Thom Tillis, R-NC; Joe Manchin, D-WV; Martha McSally, R-AZ; Tammy Duckworth, D-IL; Marsha Blackburn, R-TN; Doug Jones, D-AL; Lamar Alexander, R-TN; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI; Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-MS; Benjamin Cardin, D-MD; Jim Risch, R-ID; Chris Coons, D-DE; Mike Crapo, R-ID; Rob Portman, R-OH; and Kevin Cramer, R-ND.

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