Moon Base: Bangor Scientists Design Fuel for Living in Space
- Written by Peter Gillibrand and Rob Thomas
- BBC News
Scientists have developed an energy source that could allow astronauts to live on the moon for extended periods of time.
The NASA-led Artemis program hopes to establish a site on the lunar surface by around 2030.
Bangor University has designed nuclear fuel cells, the size of poppy seeds, to produce the energy needed to sustain life there.
Professor Simon Middleberg, from the university, said the work was challenging “but fun”.
The Moon, considered by some to be the gateway to Mars, contains many valuable resources needed for modern technology.
The hope is that it can be used as a stepping stone to reach distant planets.
With space technology advancing at a rapid pace, the BBC has been granted exclusive access to the laboratory of the Institute for the Nuclear Future at Bangor University.
The Bangor team, a world leader in fuels, works with partners such as Rolls-Royce, the British Space Agency, NASA and Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States.
Professor Middleberg of the Nuclear Futures Institute said the team hoped to conduct a full test of nuclear fuel “within the next few months”.
Temperatures in parts of the Moon drop to astonishingly low -248°C because there is no atmosphere to warm the surface.
Bangor University is a major player in the quest to generate another way to produce energy and heat to sustain life there.
The researchers have just sent the tiny nuclear fuel cell, known as a Trisofuel, to their partners for testing.
This Trisofuel cell could be used to power a small nuclear generator, built by Rolls Royce.
The generator is a portable device about the size of a small car and “something you can fit on a rocket,” Middleberg said.
This will now be fully tested and subjected to similar forces as a launch into space, ready for a lunar base in 2030.
He added, “You can launch it into space with all the power… and it will still work completely safely when it is put on the moon.”
Earlier this month, India made a historic landing near the moon’s south pole using its robotic probe Chandrayaan-3.
One of the main goals of the mission is to search for water ice that, scientists say, could support human habitation on the moon in the future.
Professor Middleberg said Bangor University’s work put Wales on the map.
“I would say we are really pushing things (globally),” he said.
The university hopes that small generators can be used here on Earth, as they are in disaster areas when the electricity goes out.
The team in Bangor is also working on a nuclear missile power system, led by Dr. Phyllis Makurong.
She said: “It’s very strong, it gives a very high thrust, which is the push it gives to the missile.
“This is very important because it enables rockets to reach the most distant planets.”
Dr Makurongi said the new technology could cut the time it takes to get to Mars almost in half.
“With nuclear thermal propulsion, we are looking at about four to six months to get to Mars. The current period is more than nine months,” she said.
Moon rules in the 2030s
Geopolitical writer and journalist Tim Marshall said the fuel advance was a step toward a global race to the moon’s south pole.
“I’m confident there will be bases on the moon in the 2030s,” he said. “Maybe a Chinese base; maybe a US-led base.”
He added, “I’m confident because I don’t think the major powers can afford not to be there just in case there is a massive breakthrough, which is likely to be.”
“So the Chinese are talking about the year 2028, when they will lay the first foundation stone, perhaps symbolically to say they are the first. But by the early 2030s, they will both have a foundation.
“It is believed that there are titanium, lithium, silicon, iron and many other metals that are used in all kinds of 21st century technologies.
“The actual amount is not known…but most companies are confident it is enough to make it economically viable.”
He warned that things could get complicated with the commercialization of space, citing outdated space laws.
The rules of the road, as they are, were written in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.
“It is still a model but it is outdated from 50 years ago because it was not aware of the modern technology and the competition that was there and the commercial aspects – because at that time it was very much state driven.
“Without modernizing the laws, which have been approved by the United Nations, it becomes more or less a freedom for everyone – and that brings risks.
“Because if you don’t have the guiding principles that you’re going to operate within, the obvious competition that will happen is working without a legal framework.”