The US military wants to demonstrate new nuclear power systems in space by 2027
Add the Defense Innovation Unit to a growing list of US government organizations that are advancing their work on nuclear energy at an accelerating pace.
The organization, which seeks to get the military ready to use emerging commercial products, announced two model contracts on May 17 “to demonstrate the next generation of nuclear propulsion and power capability for spacecraft.” DIU officials said in a statement that the ultimate goal is to display an orbital flight in 2027 (Opens in a new tab).
The contracts went to two companies, Ultra Safe Nuclear and Avalanche Energy, to demonstrate nuclear propulsion and power capabilities for small spacecraft that will operate in lunar (Earth-Moon) space. (The contract values were not disclosed in the statement.)
It’s part of the U.S. military’s urgent focus on lunar space activities to monitor the commercial and government activities that will intensify there in the coming decades, including the NASA-led International Artemis Program that seeks to put people on the moon in the 1920s.
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If all goes as planned, Ultra Safe Nuclear will showcase the EmberCore, a rechargeable nuclear radioisotope battery useful for propulsion and power.
The DIU stated that the “next-generation” radioisotope system “will be able to scale to energy levels ten times higher, compared to plutonium systems, and provide more than one million kilowatt-hours of energy in just a few kilograms of fuel.” .
Avalanche Energy’s Orbitron seeks to trap fusion ions in electrostatic fields, with the help of a magnetron to keep electrons closer to their nuclei (atomic nuclei) than would normally be possible.
“The resulting fusion combustion results in energetic particles that generate either heat or electricity, which can power a highly efficient propulsion system,” DIU stated. “Compared to other fusion concepts, Orbitron devices are promising for space applications as they can be minimized and enable their use as a thrust and power source.”
Another military organization seeking to acquire lunar nuclear technology is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). On May 4, the organization announced that it is ready to move forward with a project to design, develop and assemble a thermonuclear rocket engine for a trial demonstration expected in Earth orbit by 2026.
The proposals will support the DARPA Agile Cislunar Operations Demonstration Program (DRACO), which aims to develop a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) system for use in Earth and lunar space.
NTP uses fission reactors to heat hydrogen or other propellants and release them from nozzles for thrust, generating a thrust-to-weight ratio 10,000 times higher than electric propulsion systems. It also improves chemical rockets, as the thrust (specific thrust) efficiency of NTPs is about two to five times higher, DARPA officials wrote in the DRACO program description. (Opens in a new tab).
NASA is looking at NTPs, too. Such systems could bring astronauts to Mars in half the time of current propulsion systems (which could take six to nine months). NASA’s fiscal 2023 budget request, yet to be approved by Congress, includes $15 million (Opens in a new tab) To support nuclear propulsion, NASA is collaborating on the Draco project as well.