Not all light bulbs are created equal. Some are more powerful, take more energy, or have features such as blinking or blinking. Some aren’t even intended for humans, like a new project that recently received funding from a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase 1 award. Designed by Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC), this lamp emits no visible light, but emits X-rays and gamma rays, and the project researchers believe could be useful for finding resources on the moon.
Key to this technology is a new radioisotope developed by USNC that bears the trade name EmberCore. It is a type of chargeable nuclear ceramic, similar to the radioisotope found in the radioisotope thermogenerators used by Mars rovers such as Curiosity and Perseverance. So the same radioisotope can be used as a power source for the rover, but it has a clear advantage over other RTG cores.
When shielded in a certain way, EmberCore emits X and Gamma rays that can be directed to a specific location, like a flashlight. Effectively, the rover’s power source can also drive a high-intensity scanning beam. According to the company’s press release jointly with the Stage 1 Prize Announcement, the beam can travel several kilometers in an airless world.
As with many remote sensing applications, this beam will be reflected at least in part by the rover-mounted sensor and can be analyzed to detect the material it is reflecting off. But, X-rays have an additional advantage that anyone who has seen a medical person will be aware of – they can see what is below the surface of the body. Gamma rays can do that, too.
This additional advantage makes having a controllable X-ray/gamma-ray remote sensing platform that also serves as a remote sensing platform power source Carrying the rover is an exciting innovation and is exactly the kind of research NIAC usually goes for. The outcome of this initial research will be the design of a mission to one of two places on the Moon.
First up would be Shackleton Crater, which has long been believed to hold large amounts of water. Access to this water will be vital to support any long-term human effort to live on the moon. A remote sensing platform that can scan the perimeter of the crater for the most important deposits on and below the surface is invaluable for guiding astronauts to where to look.
Another site would be the famous Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis), where Apollo 11 first landed on the Moon. It has a lot of exposed layers of rock that can provide insight into the geological formation of the Moon. However, it is only accessible through dangerous terrain that would be difficult for any rover to traverse. Hitting them with an EmberCore flashlight will allow the rover to monitor them remotely without making a difficult trek to reach them.
NIAC’s first-stage grants are a first step on a long road toward using them for a space mission. But USNC, which is based in Seattle and is headed by a former chief scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and its EmberCore technology is down that road with this concept, and it’s not the first they’ve done it. It was also funded by the US Army’s Defense Innovation Unit to research a nuclear propulsion engine for spacecraft, which is also based on the EmberCore engine. There may be a lot of use cases for this new innovation in space exploration in the future.
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