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NASA partners with INL to contract designs for a new lunar fission reactor

IDHAO FALLS, Idaho (KIFI) - Idaho National Lab is taking another step closer to science fiction. 

Battelle Energy Alliance and NASA have partnered to contract designs of nuclear reactors capable of powering lunar projects. Those contractors will work through the INL to develop initial designs under contracts worth $5 million.

"This is a way of providing power on environments such as the surface of the moon, the surface of Mars, providing enough power to sustain a manned colony or outpost," INL division director for Space Nuclear Power Steven Johnson said. "Space nuclear power has been around for over 50 years. It is providing power in remote or hostile environments, whether it's for sustainment of life, propulsion, working satellites, probes, to distant places in our solar system."

While lunar colonies are still far off, the DOE and NASA plan to demonstrate the nuclear reactor on the moon by the end of the decade.

Scientists at INL believe the project will lead to advancements in both nuclear technology and space travel.

“The Fission Surface Power project is a very achievable first step toward the United States establishing nuclear power on the moon, and I look forward to seeing what each of these teams will accomplish,” INL Director John Wagner said. “This project will also advance technologies that are directly relevant to nuclear electric propulsion systems for space applications.”

This is by no means the first use of nuclear energy in space. As a leader in nuclear energy research, INL has developed power systems for several Mars rovers and beyond.

"Those power systems were done here at the lab. In the mission that went to do the fly by Pluto in 2015, that power supply was made here at the lab. We're currently working on a power supply for a mission to the moon Titan, which will take place in 2027," Johnson said.

For now, INL has narrowed the potential contractors down to three companies. Each will be awarded a 12-month contract going into Phase 1 of design efforts.

  • Lockheed Martin – the company will partner with BWXT and Creare
  • Westinghouse – the company will partner with Aerojet Rocketdyne
  • IX, a joint venture of Intuitive Machines and X-Energy – the company will partner with Maxar and Boeing

"At the end of the period, the NASA will be looking at going into phase two, which is a lot more funding and developing hardware, as well as proving the designs out. So right now it's purely a paper design and a study by all three teams," Johnson said.

After the 12-month study, INL will determine the best contract and then move forward with building the reactor for launch.

While the end of the decade is still a ways away, Johnson dreams of seeing the reactor prepare for takeoff.

"I'll very much look forward to watching that rocket take off from Kennedy Space Center here before the end of the decade. I mean, it's a huge huge step that, we just haven't been there before. The entire world hasn't been there before. As far as getting a reactor to the surface of the moon," Johnson said.

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Seth Ratliff

Seth is a reporter for Local News 8 and Eyewitness News 3.

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