Episode 8 of Tech Lightning Rounds discusses the advances being made in renewable energy sources. Beth Kindig goes directly to the source of expertise in solar energy and sustainable energy in space with interviews from NASA, Stanford’s Departments of Energy Business Innovations and on data interoperability with Intertrust’s Platform. Interviews are held in “lightning round” format, which are rapid interviews with tech experts for immediate depth on each topic.
In this podcast interview, Lee Mason of NASA discusses the ultimate energy challenge; sustaining life on the Moon and Mars. Mason talks about the Kilopower project, which is an effort to develop preliminary concepts and technologies that can be used for an affordable fission nuclear power system to enable long-term stays on planetary surfaces. The nuclear power source helps the astronaut crews survive 14 days of darkness and helps to power mining resources, such as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) plants. ISRU is the practice of collecting, processing and storing astronomical objects, and helps to reduce the cost of space exploration.
As Mason points out, affordable nuclear power systems, such as the Kilopower system, leverages the existing hardware and facilities for a relatively low development cost compared to previous NASA investments. These systems are essential for backing up solar power systems, which are more effective during the 14 days of light as opposed to the 14 days of darkness on the moon.
NASA is planning lunar missions with humans as early as 2024 with a goal for sustainable presence by 2028.
02:22 BK: NASA is an agency that has accomplished incredible feats through space exploration. The agency is also a thought leader on climate and renewable energy resources. I speak with Lee Mason who has been a NASA engineer for over 30 years, and is currently the Deputy Chief Engineer of Space Technology’s Mission Directorate, about the projects NASA is working on to create sustainable energy for life on the Moon and Mars. How have power technologies for space missions changed over the course of your career?
02:54 LM: That’s a great question. As I said, I’ve been working at NASA for over 30 years. I can remember some of my very first activities developing megawatt scale nuclear power plants on the Moon and Mars, and we’ve gotten a little more conservative, I guess, in terms of our mission plans. And we’ve done that because of constraints on our budget and the limitations that we are forced to work within. But the good news is, we’ve defined these missions that can still be very successful that don’t require megawatts of power. And so, I’ve seen, over my 30 years, a gradual decline in the amount of power needed to do our missions and so the technologies have changed accordingly, but we still have very aggressive approaches for doing these missions and expanding beyond low Earth orbit.
03:55 BK: What is the Kilopower project?
03:57 LM: The Kilopower project was conceived back in about 2010, in which the agency was looking for concepts to produce between 1 and 10 kilowatts for deep space missions. And we really didn’t have an option in that power class and so we were looking to see how small a space reactor we could design and develop and therein, we derived this new design, this Kilopower design, and a few years later, we were given a project to advance the technology and then design, build and test a 1-kilowatt system, which we completed out in the Nevada desert in 2018.
04:37 BK: Can you explain what an affordable fission nuclear power system is?
04:42 LM: Affordability is a relative term, of course. Developing nuclear power plants is an expensive endeavor and developing space systems is an expensive endeavor, of course. By affordable, we mean developing a technology in this Kilopower system that can leverage existing hardware, existing facilities, and take advantage of those to get to a relatively low development cost. And so in our three-year project to design, build and test a 1 kilowatt fission reactor, we were able to do that for less than $20 million. That is a lot of money but compared to some of the investments that NASA has made in the past in this technology, it’s a fairly small number. And so we’re very proud of the fact that we were able to achieve so much for so little.
05:37 BK: Lee and I talk about when we will see sustainable life on the Moon and what will be needed to survive 14 days of darkness. When will humans live on the Moon or live on Mars? What does the future look like?
05:52 LM: The future seems to be changing at a very rapid pace. Only a few months ago, NASA was planning missions to the Moon, in which we would start with small robotic landers in the early 2020s, and eventually, hopefully, land humans there around 2028. Well, we’ve gotten some new direction from our president and vice president, requesting us to accelerate that, so now we’re looking at lunar missions with humans as early as 2024. And so, all our plans have been kind of accelerated to reach that goal. Hopefully, by 2024, we would be landing the next man and the first woman on the surface of the Moon and our plan is to not just stop there, but continue on and establish a sustainable presence on the Moon that where we could go back to these locations and take advantage of lunar resources to bootstrap our presence in space and hopefully get to Mars. And so the goal for sustainable presence is 2028.
06:58 BK: And the Kilopower project enables that then or…
07:01 LM: Well, the Kilopower project would certainly help to sustain a human presence on the surface to the Moon. On the Moon, you have these periods of 14 days of darkness, followed by 14 days of sunlight, and so the sunlight period is great for solar power systems, but in order to survive through these 14 days of darkness, you really need a nuclear power source, and so fuel power would be a very important element of that mission to allow the crew to survive and also to power things like In-Situ Resource Utilization plants that would help us to mine the resources there on the Moon, take advantage of them, and make things like oxygen to breathe and fuel to power our spacecraft.
07:50 BK: Is there anything that you would like to add?
07:53 LM: I really appreciate the opportunity to speak to you. I think NASA is in a position now to do some really wonderful things on the Moon that will allow us to position ourselves for Mars and beyond. And we have a strong plan in place and we have a mandate now from the administrator to move forward on that. And projects like Kilopower are gonna be a key part of it. There’s lots of other interesting technologies: Cryogenic propulsion systems and In-Situ Resource Utilization plants and other advanced power technologies, including fuel cells and advanced solar rays. We’re gonna need to develop a lot of new technologies but once they’re in hand, I think that they will afford us an opportunity to really expand our presence beyond low earth orbit and do these missions that are so important to mankind.