Masten Space Working on System to Help Vehicles Survive Frigid Lunar Nights

China’s Yutu 2 rover drives off the Chang’e-4 lander. (Credit: CNSA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

MOJAVE, Calif. — One of the big challenges faced by lunar landers and rovers is the 14-day lunar night. Temperatures can drop to minus 280 Fahrenheit (minus 173 Celsius), causing vehicle components to literally freeze to death before the sun reappears.

Masten Space Systems is working on a solution to the problem of frigid lunar nights with financing from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

“This metal oxidation warming system (MOWS) employs moderate-temperature chemical reactions to deliver heat for thermal control with order-of-magnitude greater specific energy than battery-based approaches,” the company said in its proposal summary.

“This system will enable flight computers, payloads, and other components to survive the lunar night, and can be deactivated during the lunar day to prevent overheating,” the summary added. “A warming solution using MOWS is low-mass, dust-proof, non-radioactive, and has high system specific energy.”

NASA recently selected the project for a SBIR phase II grant worth up to $750,000 to continue developing MOWS. The space agency previously supported the research with a smaller phase I grant.

Masten estimates MOWS would save about $50 million in mission costs compared to a flight-proven nuclear system used to keep a surface vehicle warm. It could also save about $10 million worth of mass compared to available batteries.

The project summary follows.

Surviving the Lunar Night Using Metal Oxidation Warming Systems
Subtopic: Thermal Control Systems

Masten Space Systems, Inc.
Mojave, CA

Principal Investigator
Matthew Kuhns

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 4
End: 7

Technical Abstract

Masten’s proposed innovation is a warming solution that allows spacecraft systems to survive the lunar night and operate continuously in shaded lunar regions. This metal oxidation warming system (MOWS) employs moderate-temperature chemical reactions to deliver heat for thermal control with order-of-magnitude greater specific energy than battery-based approaches.

Similar chemical systems have been used terrestrially, but MOWS for spacecraft systems have not been demonstrated. This system will enable flight computers, payloads, and other components to survive the lunar night, and can be deactivated during the lunar day to prevent overheating. A warming solution using MOWS is low-mass, dust-proof, non-radioactive, and has high system specific energy.

In this Phase II effort, Masten will develop a MOWS demonstration unit intended to universally interface with NASA or commercial payloads. Masten will mature the design of this system through multiple Design and Analysis Cycles (DACs) interspersed with component-level and integrated testing.

This work will include development of a robust and autonomous control system for MOWS, maturation of components to improve stability and specific energy, and payload interface design. Masten will then manufacture and test a high-fidelity MOWS demonstration unit, which will be delivered to NASA for additional integration and testing work.

Potential NASA Applications

NASA systems operating on the lunar surface that use MOWS will: 

  1. Expand the scope of lunar missions for long-duration science.
  2. Enable survival through the lunar night and operation in permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) or other areas with limited sunlight exposure like the lunar poles.
  3. Improve thermal performance with decreased weight over current state-of-the-art solutions to survive the lunar night.
  4. Save ~$50M+ in direct costs compared to a flight proven nuclear solution or ~$10M+ in mass penalties compared to available battery solutions.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

As the cislunar domain becomes an increasingly populated environment, the demand for technologies, like MOWS, that enable extended and persistent missions will grow. MOWS increases mission durations by 100-1,000% or more; at a low multi-million dollar cost point, MOWS may be an attractive option for lunar stakeholders that desire increased mission durations. 

Duration: 18 months