An illustration of a Kilopower nuclear reactor on the moon. NASA is considering a flight test of that fission reactor technology, possibly flown on a lunar lander, in the mid-2020s. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA and the Department of Energy announced a memorandum of understanding (MOU) Oct. 20 that is the latest in a series of measures by the two agencies to expand cooperation.

The MOU, signed by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette and announced at a meeting of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, is intended to expand the existing cooperation between the two agencies in space nuclear power to other topics in science and engineering.

“Earlier this year, after a meeting that he and I had in my office, we agreed we would begin the process right there,” Brouillette recalled at the meeting. Representatives of the two agencies met in Florida ahead of the July 30 launch of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, which includes a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) power source using plutonium provided by the Department of Energy.

The work between the two agencies has largely revolved around RTGs and other nuclear power sources, including ongoing work on new nuclear power systems and nuclear propulsion for future Mars exploration. That is included in the new MOU, but also expands that cooperation to other topics.

The MOU calls for creating three joint working groups on lunar surface infrastructure, space nuclear power and propulsion, and space science and innovation. Those working groups will prepare one-page reports outlining potential activities on developing infrastructure for a future lunar base, power systems for that lunar base, nuclear propulsion systems for Mars, and support for space situational awareness, space weather and planetary defense.

The agreement also creates an executive committee, jointly chaired by NASA’s deputy administrator and the deputy secretary of energy, that will meet “on a regular basis” to implement the agreement.

“Our two agencies can come up with very clear strategic plans where we can collaborate on these initiatives that President Trump has put forward,” like exploration of the moon and Mars, Bridenstine said at the board meeting.

The intent is to create a more formal method of cooperation between the agencies. “There’s a long history of cooperation between NASA and the Department of Energy,” said Norm Augustine, the retired Lockheed Martin chief executive who is co-chair of a space science working group for the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, later at the Oct. 20 board meeting.

“The thing that’s characterized it, though, is that it’s been largely ad hoc, where somebody at NASA knew about work at DOE, or vice versa,” he added. “That’s led to a number of successes, but probably a number of missed opportunities.”

The Department of Energy has, over the last year, worked to increase its profile in the space field. The department formally joined the National Space Council in February, and in September met with Bridenstine to discuss cooperation in nuclear power and other technologies. The department has also increased its outreach to companies in the space industry on potential collaboration in technology development.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...