Pack your bags, it's time to nuke ourselves to the moon! And while we're at it, we might as well bring along a few extra nukes, in the form of miniaturized nuclear reactors that can fit inside a suitcase and power a moon base or two.
We're all used to thinking of nuclear reactors as gigantic and complex structures with containment domes and cooling towers and all kinds of potential for disaster, but conventional nuclear power plants are only designed like that because they're expected to produce enormous amounts of power. In principle, you can start a nuclear reaction in a much smaller and simpler package, like the concept that was presented this week at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. NASA and the Department of Energy are teaming up to develop a suitcase-sized nuclear fission reactor that'll be capable of generating about 40 kilowatts of power for years on end. And they do mean suitcase-sized, literally:
"People would never recognize the fission power system as a nuclear power reactor. The reactor itself may be about 1 ½ feet wide by 2 ½ feet high, about the size of a carry-on suitcase. There are no cooling towers. A fission power system is a compact, reliable, safe system that may be critical to the establishment of outposts or habitats on other planets. Fission power technology can be applied on Earth's Moon, on Mars, or wherever NASA sees the need for continuous power."
While fuel cells and solar power have done a decent enough job keeping satellites and space stations powered up until now, neither of these sources is all that great for the long duration space exploration that's in our future. Fuel cells run out of, you know, fuel, and as for solar cells, they're heavily dependent on ambient conditions. Ask the Mars rovers: changing seasons and dust have crippled their power generation, which is why the next rover is using a butt-mounted radioisotope generator. Small, safe, reliable fission generators are the next logical step, and they'll allow us to finally build ourselves one of those off-planet cave lairs we've always wanted. Muahahahaha!