Home » US firm to develop nuclear-powered x-ray ‘flashlight’ for lunar surface exploration

US firm to develop nuclear-powered x-ray ‘flashlight’ for lunar surface exploration

by Liam Turner
A rendering of the nuclear-powered flashlight in action on the lunar surface

US-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) is to develop a nuclear-powered ‘flashlight’ for use on the surface of the moon as part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme.

The Phase 1 study – ‘EmberCore Flashlight: Long Distance Lunar Characterisation with Intense Passive X- and Gamma-ray Source’ – will be led by Dr Chris Morrison, chief engineer, Radioisotopes.

Dr Thomas Prettyman of the Planetary Science Institute will be supporting this work as a co-investigator.

The X-Ray Flashlight will utilise EmberSource, which is based on the Ember nuclear chargeable ceramic that USNC has been developing for ultra-high-speed propulsion in space and for survive-the-night capabilities on the lunar surface.

By integrating EmberSource into a specially designed casing, x-rays that would normally be contained by shielding are instead released through a controllable aperture.

As those x-rays interact with the lunar surface and reflect into a sensor, they can provide information about the lunar surface and what lies beneath.

‘Potentially game-changing’

Dr Thomas Prettyman, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, said: “This technology will enable characterisation of the structure and composition of the lunar surface in unprecedented detail.

“The capabilities for standoff analyses of elemental composition and operation in darkness are potentially game-changing.”

A rover equipped with an EmberSource X-Ray Flashlight could use its x-rays to map the composition of broad areas of the lunar surface from a distance, USNC says.

Chris Morrison, chief engineer for Radioisotopes at Ultra Safe Nuclear, said: “The EmberSource x-ray flashlight represents the right combination of cutting-edge technology and groundbreaking science which the NASA NIAC program is designed to foster.

“The new capabilities provided by this technology could revolutionise lunar exploration by giving us the clearest picture we’ve ever had of what resources are available on the moon, hopefully paving the way for a sustainable human presence there.”

The EmberSource X-Ray Flashlight in development for this Phase 1 NIAC is intended to be used in two locations on the moon: Shackleton Crater and Mare Tranquillitatis.

In these places, it could be used to search for significant amounts of water and other volatile materials that are crucial for making the moon habitable for humans long-term, USNC says.

Image: A rendering of the nuclear-powered flashlight in action on the lunar surface. Credit: Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation

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