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Nuclear fission identified as best way to power a Moon base

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Nuclear fission reactors have emerged as the best way to generate electricity in space researchers have said as proposals are being considered for a human-inhabited base on the Moon.

Nasa is currently planning its next human mission to the Moon in 2024, and a permanent Moon base is also being considered as a possible jumping off point for a trip to Mars.

In the ACS Central Science journal, correspondent Tien Nguyen considers the many factors that need to be taken into account when powering such a facility.

The power source must be capable of being transported safely from Earth and of withstanding the harsh conditions of other worlds.

Past space missions have used solar power as a scalable and renewable source of electricity, but the dark craters of the Moon or the dusty surface of Mars may not offer enough light.

The limited lifespans of battery and fuel-cell technologies typically relegate them to backup options.

Nuclear devices that run on decaying plutonium-238 have been used to power spacecraft since the 1960s, including Mars rovers and the space probes Voyager and Cassini, but they don’t provide enough energy for a settlement.

In contrast, nuclear fission reactors that split uranium-235 atoms, which are used by power plants here on Earth, could provide a reliable power source for a small space settlement for several years, scientists estimate.

Despite funding and design setbacks, researchers are reinvigorating efforts to create a nuclear reactor for space travel and settlement.

The last decade has seen a team of scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Nasa and the US Department of Energy work on developing a new nuclear fission system that could produce at least 10 kilowatts of energy.

With a core containing molybdenum and highly enriched uranium, the reactor uses nuclear fission to generate heat, which is converted to electricity by simple piston-driven engines.

A prototype was tested in 2018 that produced up to 5 kilowatts of electricity. The researchers hope to optimise the technology to achieve the desired 10-kilowatt output.

They also say that transporting uranium in space can be done safely, as the alpha particles emitted by the core are weak and can be fully contained by proper shielding.

In March, a study found that Moon bases could be built less expensively by using the urine of the astronauts who stay there.

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