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.
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.
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.
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NASA Wants To Mine The Moon, But Law Experts Say It's Not That Simple – SlashGear
The first roadblock facing humans as we seek to expand our presence in the solar system lies in technology. NASA reports that it takes about seven months (measured in Earth days) to travel from our planet’s surface to Mars. Thrillist notes that travel to the Moon only requires a three-day journey, while exploration of Jupiter or Saturn (the next bodies out from Mars) would require a lengthy, six- or seven-year voyage, respectively. On a technical level, our current means of launching satellites and humans at these distant bodies is exactly that, a launch (via NASA). In order to make space travel more feasible for human explorers, we would need to develop a propulsion system that could continually deliver powered flight to a spacecraft, or at least the ability to continually augment flight speed, rather than simply relying on initial launch velocity to carry the craft along to its final destination.
This means a combination of two distinct realities: Humans must develop a brand new means of propulsion that requires far less storage space and mass, a revolutionary idea to be sure; and we must develop the ability to hop between planets and refuel along this lengthy journey. Therefore, technological advancement that would support increased space travel would require both colonization and a capacity for extracting mineral resources from the surfaces of neighboring planets and moons. Continuous habitation in new worlds would be required to support these efforts.
Good planning gets the bike rolling – Science Daily
In surveys, a large majority of respondents usually agree that cycling can make a significant contribution to reducing greenhouse gases and to sustainable transport, especially in densely populated areas. In contrast, for many countries in reality there is a large gap between desired and actual numbers. In Germany, for example, only 20% of the short-distance of everyday trips in residential environments are covered by bicycle.
When asked about the reasons, one point repeatedly comes up top of the list: The perceived or actual lack of safety on the bike routes used. Increasing the share of cycling trips in the modal split thus depends crucially on a well-developed bike path infrastructure. However, designing efficient bike path networks is a complex problem that involves balancing a variety of constraints while meeting overall cycling demand. In addition, many municipalities still only have small budgets available for improving bicycle infrastructure.
In their study, researchers from the Chair of Network Dynamics / Center for Advancing Electronics Dresden (cfaed) at TU Dresden propose a new approach to generate efficient bike path networks. This explicitly considers the demand distribution and route choice of cyclists based on safety preferences. Typically, minimizing the travel distance is not the only goal, but aspects such as (perceived) safety or attractiveness of a route are also taken into account.
The starting point of this approach is a reversal of the usual planning process: Under real conditions, a bike path network is created by constantly adding bike paths to more streets. The cfaed scientists, on the contrary, start with an ideal, complete network, in which all streets in a city are equipped with a bike path. In a virtual process, they gradually remove individual, less used bike path segments from this network. The route selection of the cyclists is continuously updated. Thus, a sequence of bike path networks is created that is always adapted to the current usage. Each stage of this sequence corresponds to a variant that could be implemented with less financial effort. In this way, city planners can select the version that fits their municipality’s budget.
“In our study, we illustrate the applicability of this demand-driven planning scheme for dense urban areas of Dresden and Hamburg,” explains Christoph Steinacker, first author of the study. “We approach a real-life issue here using the theoretic toolbox of network dynamics. Our approach allows us to compare efficient bike path networks under different conditions. For example, it allows us to measure the influence of different demand distributions on the emerging network structures.” The proposed approach can thus provide a quantitative assessment of the structure of current and planned bike path networks and support demand-driven design of efficient infrastructures.
Laughing gas in space could mean life
To date, over 5000 exoplanetary systems have been discovered. Biosignatures are chemical components in a planet’s atmosphere that may indicate life, and they frequently include abundant gases in our planet’s atmosphere.
Eddie Schwieterman, an astrobiologist in UCR’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, said, “There’s been a lot of thought put into oxygen and methane as biosignatures. Fewer researchers have seriously considered nitrous oxide, but we think that may be a mistake.”
To reach this conclusion, scientists determined how much nitrous oxide a planet like Earth could conceivably produce. After that, they created simulations of that planet orbiting various types of stars and calculated the amounts of N2O that could be captured by a telescope like the James Webb Space Telescope.
Nitrous oxide, or N2O, is a gas produced in various ways by living things. Microorganisms continuously convert other nitrogen molecules into N2O through a metabolic process that can produce useful cellular energy.
Schwieterman said, “Life generates nitrogen waste products that are converted by some microorganisms into nitrates. In a fish tank, these nitrates build-up, which is why you have to change the water. However, under the right conditions in the ocean, certain bacteria can convert those nitrates into N2O. The gas then leaks into the atmosphere.”
N2O can be found in an environment and still not be an indication of life in some situations. This was considered in the new modeling. For instance, lightning can produce a small amount of nitrous oxide. However, lightning also produces nitrogen dioxide, giving astrobiologists a hint that non-living meteorological or geological processes produced the gas.
Others who have considered N2O as a biosignature gas often conclude it would be difficult to detect from so far away. Schwieterman explained that this conclusion is based on N2O concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere today. Because there isn’t much of it on this planet, which is teeming with life, some believe it would also be hard to detect elsewhere.
Schwieterman said, “This conclusion doesn’t account for periods in Earth’s history where ocean conditions would have allowed for the much greater biological release of N2O. Conditions in those periods might mirror where an exoplanet is a today.”
“Common stars like K and M dwarfs produce a light spectrum that is less effective at breaking up the N2O molecule than our sun is. These two effects combined could greatly increase the predicted amount of this biosignature gas on an inhabited world.”
The study was conducted in collaboration with Purdue University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, American University, and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
- Edward W. Schwieterman, Stephanie L. Olson et al. Evaluating the Plausible Range of N2O Biosignatures on Exo-Earths: An Integrated Biogeochemical, Photochemical, and Spectral Modeling Approach. The Astrophysical Journal. DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/ac8cfb
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