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    Houston company could bring nuclear power for rovers and living spaces on the moon


    June 22, 2022 - Andrea Leinfelder, Houston Chronicle

     

      Jun. 22—A Houston company is working to create nuclear power for astronauts on the moon.

      IX, a joint venture between Houston-based Intuitive Machines and Rockville, Md.-based X-energy, is receiving $5 million to design a system that could power a habitat, rover and even mining operations.

      It's one of three projects selected by NASA and the Department of Energy to work toward a fission surface power system. After the one-year period, NASA will use these designs (and what the organizations learned) to create another contract where these companies and others could bid to build the actual systems that could be placed on the moon later this decade.

      "Developing these early designs will help us lay the groundwork for powering our long-term human presence on other worlds," Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a news release.

      Nuclear power will be important on the moon because, depending on the location, astronauts will spend consecutive days or weeks in darkness. This makes solar power impractical as the number of batteries needed to survive the dark days would be too heavy — and thus unaffordable — to launch to the moon.

      The Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory awarded the contracts. Lockheed Martin and Westinghouse were also selected to lead initial design concepts.

      IX is drawing on the expertise of two companies founded by Kam Ghaffarian, an entrepreneur with Houston ties.

      Intuitive Machines, which is building a lunar lander, is responsible for ensuring the system can land and operate on the moon (NASA will procure the lander with a different contract, so it's not guaranteed that Intuitive Machines' lander would lower the power system to the moon).

      X-energy, which is developing advanced nuclear energy to be used on or off the planet Earth, is focused on the reactor that will create thermal power that's converted into electricity.

      With assistance from Maxar and Boeing, Intuitive Machines and X-energy will create a 40-kilowatt electric system that could be used to power a human habitat, rovers, mining equipment or other machinery.

      "It's more than what's needed to just live there," said Pete McGrath, vice president of business development at Intuitive Machines. "It's really about what's needed to survive there and operate there."

      The companies will have to overcome many challenges. Their system must survive wide temperature swings, be operated autonomously or from Earth — most nuclear power plants have onsite personnel 2 4/7 — and cannot weigh more than 13,227 pounds so that one single rocket mission could push it to the moon.

      Making systems with these constraints could benefit folks on Earth, too, particularly in remote communities needing more reliable access to power.

      "We will learn things that we can roll into and parlay toward terrestrial applications," said Harlan Bowers, president of X-energy.

      As for Intuitive Machines, designing this nuclear power system could help expand its reach on the moon. Its first lunar lander is slated to carry NASA-provided payloads and commercial cargo to the moon later this year.

      The company is also planning to develop satellites that would orbit the moon so Intuitive Machines — and other companies — could communicate with their devices on the lunar surface.

      andrea.leinfelder@chron.com

      twitter.com/a_leinfelder

      ___

      (c)2022 the Houston Chronicle

      Visit the Houston Chronicle at www.chron.com

      Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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