NASA is said to be the forerunner of the newest invented technologies, even before the military puts an eye on them (or sometimes the second to use them). Still, some NASA officials have decided to use an old technology, such as the Stirling engine, to generate electricity on the future moon bases. Stirling engines convert raw heat into electricity by cooling and heating two interlinked chambers, and moving pistons through a variable difference of pressure/temperature. If successful, the technology could even be implemented on Mars.
The generator NASA is planning to use is powered by nuclear fission. At Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., NASA built a testing facility for the 40kW Stirling engine, without the nuclear source, though. The heat source is being simulated by using a specialized pump, provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, and a coolant loop filled with a mixture of sodium and potassium. The loop provides heat to the Stirling engine in conditions very close to the reality, when a fission reactor would be attached.
“A small fission-based nuclear reactor coupled with a Stirling engine could provide up to 40 kilowatts of usable energy, enough to support a moon base or Mars outpost,” said Houts. That’s about the same amount of power needed to supply eight houses on Earth, NASA officials have said. The test series was conducted as part of the fission-based surface power project, within NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program, which is tasked with developing advanced technologies that will enable NASA to conduct future human exploration missions, while reducing mission risk and cost.
The fission reactor will be the size of a trash can, and the radioactive material inside will have enough energy to power the station for several decades. The Stirling engine has been developed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
The next step NASA wants to make is connecting the radiator, engine and alternator into a single, working unit, still without the nuclear source, but we’ll only talk about that in 2012, when it’s scheduled to happen.