NASA and DOE Fund Three Thermal Nuclear Space Propulsion Concepts


Nuclear-powered spacecraft for quick trips to March can now be one more step towards reality.

NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have teamed up to fund three reactor design concepts that could be part of a thermal nuclear propulsion system, a next-generation technology that could make deep space exploration faster and more efficient.

For example, a spacecraft powered by a thermal nuclear rocket could potentially get to Mars in just three to four months, say experts – about half the time required with traditional chemical rockets.

Related: Ultrafast spacecraft propulsion concepts (images)

“By working together, across government and with industry, the United States is advancing nuclear space propulsion,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a press release. “These design contracts are an important step towards tangible reactor hardware that could one day propel new missions and exciting discoveries. “

The newly announced contracts will be awarded by Idaho National Laboratory (INL), the DOE’s primary site for nuclear energy research. Each contract is worth up to $ 5 million. The money will finance 12 months of development work, which will culminate in the production of a reactor concept. INL experts will assess these concepts and then provide recommendations to NASA on how to proceed, agency officials said.

The three companies that received contracts are Virginia-based BWX Technologies, Inc., which will work with Lockheed Martin on the project; General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems of San Diego, which will partner with X-energy LLC and Aerojet Rocketdyne; and Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies, based in Seattle, whose partners are Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation, Blue Origin, General Electric Hitachi Nuclear Energy, General Electric Research, Framatome and Materion.

Nuclear power has propelled spacecraft almost since the dawn of the space age, helping robots such as Curiosity and Perseverance the rovers on Mars, the Cassini Saturn probe and the Voyager twin spacecraft are doing their pioneering work.

This type of nuclear technology exploits the heat generated by the radioactive decay of plutonium-238, convert it to electricity which powers scientific instruments and other equipment. Thermal nuclear propulsion systems are something completely different. They would transfer heat generated by a nuclear reactor to a liquid propellant such as hydrogen, which would then go into the gas phase, expand, and be channeled through a nozzle, creating thrust.

Thermal nuclear propulsion systems are said to have higher thrust and twice the propulsion efficiency of traditional chemical rockets, NASA officials said. These benefits are attractive enough for the space agency, which is working to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s and wants to minimize travel time to and from the Red Planet.

Nuclear reactors could also help humanity move to other worlds after they arrive. For example, NASA is working on a fission power system intended for use on the moon and Mars.

“NASA intends to partner with DOE and INL to issue a request for proposals asking industry for preliminary designs of a class 10 kilowatt system that NASA could demonstrate on the lunar surface.” agency officials wrote in the statement. “Surface fission power may also help inform nuclear electric propulsion systems, another candidate propulsion technology for distant destinations.”

Mike Wall is the author of “Over there“(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book on the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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