The US military wants to demonstrate new nuclear power plants in space by 2027

Add the Defense Innovation Unit to a growing list of US government organizations rapidly advancing their work on nuclear energy.

The organization, which aims to prepare the military to deploy new commercial products, announced May 17 two prototype contracts “to demonstrate next-generation nuclear propulsion and power capacity for spacecraft.” The ultimate goal is an orbital flight demonstration in 2027, DIU officials said in a statement (opens in 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 would operate in cislunar (Earth-Moon) space. (The values ​​of the contracts were not disclosed in the press release.)

It is part of the US military’s urgent focus on cislunar activities to keep tabs on the commercial and government activities that will increase there in the coming decades, including the international NASA-led Artemis program aimed at killing humans to put on the moon in the 2020s.

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The US military is interested in policing cislunar space as government and commercial activity in the sector increases. (Image credit: NASA)

If all goes according to plan, Ultra Safe Nuclear will demonstrate EmberCore, a rechargeable radioisotope nuclear battery useful for propulsion and power.

“This next-generation radioisotope system will scale to power levels 10 times higher than plutonium systems and will be capable of delivering more than 1 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy in just a few kilograms of fuel,” DIU said.

Avalanche Energy’s orbitron attempts to trap fusion ions in electrostatic fields, aided by a magnetron to keep the electrons closer to their nuclei (atomic nuclei) than is normally possible.

“The resulting fusion combustion then creates the energetic particles that produce either heat or electricity that can power a highly efficient propulsion system,” explained DIU. “Compared to other fusion concepts, Orbitron devices hold promise for space applications as they can be scaled down in size and allow their use as both propulsion and power sources.”

Nuclear thermal rockets, like those in this artist’s rendering, could cut the time needed for a Mars mission in half. (Image credit: Pat Rawlings/NASA)

Another military organization looking for cislunar nuclear technology is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). On May 4, the organization announced that it is ready to advance a project to design, develop and assemble a nuclear thermal rocket engine for an expected flight demonstration in Earth orbit by 2026.

The proposals will support DARPA’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, which aims to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system for use in Earth-Moon space.

NTP uses fission reactors to heat hydrogen or other propellants and shoot them out of the nozzles for thrust, producing a thrust-to-weight ratio 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion systems. It also improves chemical missiles, since the propulsion efficiency (specific impulse) of NTPs is about two to five times higher, DARPA officials wrote in a Description of the DRACO program (opens in new tab).

NASA also studies NTPs. Such systems could get astronauts to Mars in half the time of current propulsion systems (which would take six to nine months). NASA’s fiscal year 2023 budget proposal, which has not yet been approved by Congress, includes: 15 million dollars (opens in new tab) to support nuclear propulsion, and NASA is also collaborating on the DRACO project.

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