This Funky Little Thing Helps Hardware Survive Cold Nights on Alien Worlds

Masten Nighttime Integrated Thermal and Electricity 8 photos
Photo: Masten
For comparison, the NITE heat generation subsystem (on the right) is illustrated next to a soda canMasten's robotic ROCKET M systemMasten's robotic ROCKET M systemMasten's robotic ROCKET M systemMasten's robotic ROCKET M systemMasten NITEMasten NITE
With all the hype space exploration is getting these days, it’s close to impossible not to imagine a future when humanity would have expanded far beyond its natural borders, to colonize the solar system. That is a very possible reality, thanks to the level of technological prowess we’ve reached, and one can’t help to wonder how much of the hardware that will keep us alive on strange planets would trace its roots to our day and time.
That’s right, to survive on alien worlds humans need specialized hardware. What people usually tend to overlook is that the hardware itself needs help as well, if it is to survive the harsh environments it’s supposed to operate in.

Take the Moon, for instance. We know we can survive there, in temperatures going as low as minus 232 degrees Celsius (minus 386 degrees Fahrenheit), and we can do that thanks to spacecraft and suits.

But those spacecraft are run by computers, and those usually only work to minus 40 degrees Celsius (same in Fahrenheit scale). To keep them warm, and up and running, special technologies had to be devised, and they range from lithium-ion batteries to radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG).

These solutions work, and they do so pretty well, but they have a huge disadvantage: they usually take up a lot of space, especially since they require thermal and fluid systems to do their thing. And when it comes to alien worlds exploration, space is a valuable commodity. Oh, and the RTGs are also radioactive, so…

Masten NITE
Photo: Masten Space Systems
Then, what can we do to improve on the hardware meant to warm our space-faring… hardware? Probably a lot that hasn’t crossed anyone’s mind yet, but a potentially game-changing solution would be NITE.

That’s short for Nighttime Integrated Thermal and Electricity, and it’s a system being put together by Masten Space Systems with help from Penn State University (PSU) and Honeybee Robotics. Known until recently as MOWS (Metal Oxidation Warming System), NITE is a low-mass payload that could be attached to any space-faring hardware one can think of, from landers to rovers.

It’s designed to oxidize metals using propellant from whatever propulsion system the hardware is attached to uses (or, alternatively, even lunar water), by means of exothermic chemical reactions – generally meaning that it uses a small amount of energy to create a larger quantity of it.

NITE can thus supply the hardware it serves with both heat and power, keeping things operating smoothly at between minus 25 and plus 25 degrees Celsius (minus 13 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit). It can autonomously spring into life as soon as a certain temperature is reached, because running it around the clock would overheat the system it’s meant to keep warm.

For comparison, the NITE heat generation subsystem \(on the right\) is illustrated next to a soda can
Photo: Masten Space Systems
As per Masten, NITE can produce 1,900 Wh/kg of heat, while being seven times lighter than an equivalent battery meant to supply warmth for 14 nights, the amount of time many locations on the Moon are at a given time.

The hardware using NITE should be able to operate for as much as an entire year, depending on the supply of oxidizer the system burns through. By extension, missions to permanently dark locations on the Moon, like caves, could be planned and executed.

Being a relatively simple design, it should also be cheaper than current battery- and nuclear-based solutions – between $10 and $50 million cheaper, Masten says.

NITE got a NASA Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) Phase I award back in 2018, and it’s currently an on-going project. The company making it says the heat generation subsystem should be ready right around the time this coverage was put togther (mid-2022), but no exact date on when it might be flown and tested has been provided.
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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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