For all the hype surrounding the advent of the commercial space age, NASA and other government agencies will continue to play an integral role in the early stages of putting much of the infrastructure into operation before commercial players can step in. That role will primarily be filled by being the first (and sometimes only) customer of a wide variety of companies hoping to profit from exploiting space resources.
Governments around the world are starting to realize the critical role they will play in the potential new industrial age, and the US House of Representatives took a step towards accepting that responsibility when it gave NASA 6 months to come up with a plan for the development of a plan for electricity infrastructure on the Moon. In response, NASA’s principal energy and energy storage technologist, Dr. John H Scott, presented a preliminary plan for developing such infrastructure at the Space Power Workshop, held in Torrance, California, at the end of April.
The challenges of obtaining energy on the Moon have been well documented. Sunlight isn’t constant enough and batteries operating in freezing temperatures aren’t large enough for typical renewable energy plans to be feasible at the lunar South Pole, which will likely serve as the first landing site for NASA’s Artemis program. However, large amounts of energy are required for in situ resource utilization, such as producing rocket fuel to return landers to Earth and effectively operating a base camp.
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But the vision requested by the House of Representatives looked beyond the preliminary missions of Artemis, where there could potentially be a significant private industrial presence on the Moon. Dr. Scott breaks that vision down into three stages: the Artemie Base Camp stage, the ? phase in which NASA is a primary customer of commercially available energy services and a? stage where NASA is one of many other (presumably commercial) customers using existing energy services.
In some surprisingly good graphics for a government presentation, Dr. Scott also lays out the essential technology requirements for each phase and identifies what loads the technologies could be used to power. In the ? phase, technologies range from fuel cells to heliostats and can be used to power everything from rovers to full-blown laboratories.
These technologies grow in complexity as the industrial base on the Moon expands over the ? phase, where power system components include ISRU silicon photovoltaics and some power loads would include long-term surface habitats. Dr. Scott also shows the gaps in those technologies by describing the “expected future priorities” for technological development.
In Kim Stanley Robinson Mars Trilogy, one of the first astronauts on Mars is understandably delighted when he finds the base’s nuclear reactor. Dr. Scott thinks similar technology could also be useful on the Moon, as his Gap A technology is a mobile fission surface energy source. However, the technology he points to as the most important might surprise non-engineers.
Radiation-hardened power electronic circuits are high on his list of development priorities. This is because, in his words, “None of these building blocks or growth ambitions will come to fruition if the entire grid goes dark during the first solar storm. This is where we will get bitten.
He’s right: The Moon lacks Earth’s magnetic field that (mostly) protects the electronics on the planet from solar particles that could wreak havoc on the energy infrastructure should they hit the surface. At the voltages needed to power an entire lunar colony, there has been little to no development for power electronic circuits, such as converters and inverters. Therefore, radiation hardening of these components is critical, as the entire system would fail without them.
There are some options NASA is already supporting, including work on semiconductors made from exotic materials like diamonds. But more support is needed to demonstrate technologies you can rely on to support the entire lunar infrastructure.
Fortunately, even the House of Representatives has recognized this and has offered $40 million in funding in 2023 to support the development of these technologies, with the intention that they will be demonstrated by 2026. This should be in time for any significant presence permanent on the Moon, but, as Dr. Scott said in his presentation, “there is still a lot of study to be done.” He’s also right to point out that if these efforts are successful, 200 years after Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moonthere may be permanent life on our nearest neighbor and it could turn the barren acreage into another home.
John H Scott / NASA – Lunar Surface Power Systems
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Artist’s impression of Artemis astronauts on the Moon.
Credit – NASA
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