Nuclear-Powered Flashlight to Make Moon Water Detection a Breeze

EmberCore flashlight to make Moon water detection a breeze 7 photos
Photo: NASA/Christopher Morrison/edited by autoevolution
EmberCore flashlight to make Moon water detection a breezeEmberCore use in space stationsEmberCore use in space stationsEmberCoreEmberCoreEmberCore
When we think about the renewed push for the exploration of the Moon, thanks to the Artemis program, we mostly imagine a few people landing there, walking around for a bit taking photos, and then heading back home, carrying with them a piece of the Moon. That’s pretty much what happened with the Apollo program, but this time things will be a lot different.
Unlike Apollo, Artemis is not a standalone program, but the precursor of a larger effort to establish crewed lunar bases. For that to happen, a whole lot of novel technologies will have to be created to help humans find local resources, utilize them, and expand their habitats.

With all the hype Artemis has created, researchers from around the United States have invested time and effort in coming up with some incredible ideas. Some of these ideas are so good that the American space agency is investing back, through the years-old NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

In January this year, 14 different ideas on space exploration were funded with a total of $175,000. Not all of them are related to the Moon and Artemis, but most, just like the one we’re here to discuss today, are.

The long name of this idea is Long Distance Lunar Characterization with Intense Passive X- and Gamma-ray Source, but we’ll call the whole thing the EmberCore flashlight for reasons we’ll detail below.

Photo: Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation
You see, one of the main hurdles standing between us and the full exploitation of the Moon is that we don’t really know what useful stuff is up there, and where to find it. We have some general ideas, but the exact location of precious substances and materials, including water, is not known.

NASA is preparing a special rover tasked with finding water there. Called Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), it should depart for the satellite later this year, and land at the lunar South Pole to begin its 100-day quest. It will search the surface of the Moon with 3 spectrometers, and it will collect samples with a 3.28-foot (1-meter) drill.

Now, that’s the traditional way of searching an alien world, and it's pretty much how things unfold on Mars as well. But what if there was another way, one that could reveal not only the secrets of the surface, but what’s under it as well, by simply using forms of light and radiation to scan the area?

That’s what the EmberCore flashlight is supposed to do. Forwarded to NASA by Christopher Morrison from the Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation, it got a NIAC grant and could possibly revolutionize the way we look at alien worlds.

Photo: Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation
Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation plays in the nuclear technologies game, and not long ago it came up with something called the EmberCore. That would be a radioisotope-based power source or a nuclear chargeable ceramic (NCC) unit that can produce heat and X-rays without external power.

To do this, it uses neutron-charged isotopes inside a nuclear reactor. As a rare trait, the isotopes and their charging levels can be adjusted, as so can the energy output: thermal, electrical, or X-ray. And that means EmberCore can be used for a variety of applications, both on Earth and in space.

The technology is still being tested, but NASA saw its potential when used to power the mother of all flashlights. Not only could such a thing bring to light the darkest regions of the Moon, but it could also be used to determine what’s beneath the surface.

The flashlight, mounted on some kind of rover, will use X- or gamma rays produced by a modified EmberCore reactor to illuminate the path ahead. The beam being shot at the surface would be, in terms of strength, “orders of magnitude greater than what has been previously deployed in space.”

This would allow the beam to hit targets located many miles from its point of origin. It will then come back and hit a special sensor. According to Morrison, the signal received by the sensor would contain all the info needed to identify substances, including water.

EmberCore use in space stations
Photo: Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation
But that’s not all. Because the flashlight uses X- and gamma rays, details about what lies under the surface of the Moon may be revealed just as well.

Although the project is still in its early stages, Morrison is already thinking about two locations that are perfect for testing the technology. One would be the Shackleton Crater at the lunar south pole, a major candidate for the Artemis III landing, because of the detected abundance of water (not in liquid form, of course).

The other, Mare Tranquillitatis, the landing site of Apollo 11 and the first ever place on another world visited by our race. This place was chosen because of the exposed bedrock that may allow a rover’s flashlight to look at different strata and learn a thing or two about the Moon’s past.

In the longer run the EmberCore flashlight could be used to reveal the secrets of other worlds as well. It’ll take some time though until the technology relay gets going. Ultra Safe says the EmberCore technology that should unlock all of the above is just now being made and tested for various users, and we’re not given any indication on when a real-world application could be ready.
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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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