Department of Energy Looks to Support Space Exploration

by Paul M. Dabbar
Under Secretary for Science
Department of Energy

America is on the verge of a new era of space exploration, and America’s leadership in the space domain will be due to its courage to go and its conviction to stay.  DOE, by many measures the “Department of Exploration,” is proud to be playing an essential part in rising to these challenges.

NASA and SpaceX recently launched American astronauts aboard an American rocket from American soil to the International Space Station for the first time since 2011, and America is actively planning to return to the Moon … and then go even further.

DOE recently rejoined the National Space Council and will be supporting NASA’s activities under the Vice President’s leadership and the President’s Space Policy.

To that effect, DOE experts have been meeting regularly with their counterparts at NASA to better align DOE’s capabilities and expertise with U.S. space program activities in order to support America’s return to the Moon, its next giant leap to Mars, and its future beyond.

One of the most fundamental needs for any space mission is a reliable and sustained supply of power, and this is where DOE’s vast, diverse research complex will, among other things, be critical to the development of energy generation, storage, and transmission systems on the Moon and eventually on Mars.

As part of a broader strategy to regain American global leadership in nuclear energy, DOE is leading efforts with the private sector to promote the development and deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs) and microreactors – technologies that can be modified to provide sustainable power sources for space applications such as surface power and nuclear thermal propulsion.

DOE is working with NASA and the Department of Defense on applications of these technologies. In particular, DOE is partnering with NASA to demonstrate surface fission reactors that will supply the needed power for human outposts on the Moon, and eventually Mars. 

DOE is also supplying power source for the Mars Perseverance Rover, which is expected to launch for the Red Planet this July. In fact, DOE has enabled space exploration on nearly 30 missions for the past 50 years, including numerous Mars rovers, the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Cassini mission to Saturn, and the Voyager and New Horizon missions to the outer edges of our solar system and beyond.

But DOE’s pedigree in space exploration goes even further.

For instance, a team of scientists at Berkeley Lab, led by the legendary Luis Alvarez, proved that some 65 million years ago, an asteroid about the size of San Francisco smashed into Earth, leading to the demise of the dinosaurs.

Saul Perlmutter, another outstanding scientist from Berkeley Lab, shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of dark energy and the accelerating expansion of the Universe.

Since then, DOE has continued to build on Dr. Perlmutter’s breakthrough. This past January, the Dark Energy Survey (DES), an international collaboration hosted by DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, finished a six-year survey of more than 300 million distant galaxies. The 50 terabytes of data it took in are now being analyzed to provide more insight into the nature of dark energy.

The centerpiece of the effort was the Dark Energy Camera, also built by DOE.  The survey and the camera have made a number of other notable discoveries, including 12 new moons of Jupiter, many more dwarf satellite galaxies of our Milky Way, and the detection of the first visible counterpart of gravitational waves.

Berkeley Lab’s Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument is poised to pick up that work, peering deeply into the night sky to reveal further insights into dark energy and the mysteries of our universe.

The wonder is unceasing, and new possibilities, new opportunities are opening. America is once again reaching for the edge of the horizon, and DOE will continue to play a crucial part as the Department of Exploration.