The Nasa-led Artemis Programme has ambitions for building an outpost on the Moon by around 2030. But that base would require fuel as certain areas of the Moon experience bone-chilling temperatures as low as -248°C due to the lack of an atmosphere to trap heat.
Bangor University recently came up with a response to that problem, having designed nuclear fuel cells, the size of poppy seeds, to produce the energy needed to sustain life on the Moon.
Some people view the Moon as a potential stepping stone to Mars, and it holds a considerable reserve of valuable resources essential for modern technology.
The BBC was recently granted exclusive access to the Bangor University Nuclear Futures Institute's laboratory.
This renowned Bangor team, specialising in fuels, collaborates with partners such as NASA, the UK Space Agency, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, and Rolls Royce.
Professor Middleburgh, from the Nuclear Futures Institute, expressed optimism about fully testing the nuclear fuel in the coming months.
Bangor University is looking to play a vital role in the quest to develop alternative methods for generating energy and heat to support life in these harsh lunar conditions.
The researchers have recently dispatched the nuclear fuel cell, known as a Trisofuel, to their partners for testing.
This Trisofuel cell could power a micro nuclear generator designed by Rolls Royce, which is approximately the size of a small car and can be attached to a rocket.
It will undergo rigorous testing simulating the stresses of space travel, preparing for deployment in a Moon base by 2030.
Professor Middleburgh added, "You can launch them into space, with all the forces… and they'll still function quite safely when they're put onto the Moon."
He emphasised that Bangor University's work was gaining global recognition, putting Wales on the map in space research.
The university anticipates that these microgenerators could also be utilised on Earth, particularly in disaster-stricken areas where electricity is unavailable.
Nuclear propulsion rockets
Bangor University is also actively engaged in the development of nuclear propulsion systems for rockets, under the leadership of Dr Phylis Makurunje. This effective technology boasts formidable thrust capabilities, potentially reducing the travel time to Mars by nearly half.
She said, "It is very powerful — it gives very high thrust, the push it gives to the rocket. This is very important because it enables rockets to reach the farthest planets."
Dr Makurunje asserted that nuclear thermal propulsion could potentially cut the journey time, marking a substantial leap in space travel efficiency.
"With nuclear thermal propulsion, you're looking at about four to six months getting to Mars. The current duration is nine months plus," she explained to BBC.
Moon bases by 2030 amidst space law concerns
According to geopolitical author and journalist Tim Marshall, the breakthrough in fuel development is a major step toward a global competition focused on the lunar south pole.
"I'm confident there will be moon bases in the 2030s. Probably a Chinese one; probably an American-led one," he told BBC.
Anticipating the global competition, Marshall said, "So the Chinese are talking about 2028, putting the first brick down, probably symbolically to say they were the first one. But by the early 2030s, both will have a base."
The Moon's abundance of valuable minerals such as titanium, lithium, silicon, and iron, which are integral to 21st-century technology, heightens the stakes in this pursuit.
He said, "The actual amount is unknown... but most companies are confident that it's enough to make it economically viable."
However, Marshall raises concerns about the outdated Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which lacks provisions to address contemporary commercial space activities. He advocates for the formulation of updated space laws, endorsed by the United Nations, to regulate this thriving industry effectively, preventing potential disputes and hazards arising from a lack of clearly defined guidelines.
He told BBC in this regard, "The rules of the road, such as they are, were written in 1967 - the Outer Space Treaty."
He further explains, "It's still a template but it's 50 years out of date because it didn't know about modern technology, the competition that's out there and the commercial aspects - because then it was very much state-led."
He adds, "So without updated laws, agreed by the United Nations, it is a little bit of a free-for-all for everybody — and that brings dangers."
"Because if you haven't got the guidelines within which to operate, then the clear competition that will happen is operating without a legal framework."
Bangor University's pioneering work in nuclear fuel cell technology not only advances the prospect of establishing a sustainable lunar base but also signifies a substantial leap in space exploration capabilities. As these developments unfold, international collaboration and the formulation of contemporary space regulations are imperative to ensure the safe and responsible expansion of human activities in space.