NASA announces funding for nuclear thermal propulsion reactor

15 July 2021

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said on 13 July it was leading an effort, working with the Department of Energy (DOE), to advance space nuclear technologies. The government team has selected three reactor design concept proposals for a nuclear thermal propulsion system. The reactor is a critical component of a nuclear thermal engine, which would utilise high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel.

The contracts, to be awarded through the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL), are each valued at approximately $5 million. They fund the development of various design strategies for the specified performance requirements that could aid in deep space exploration.

Nuclear propulsion provides greater propellant efficiency as compared with chemical rockets. It’s a potential technology for crew and cargo missions to Mars and science missions to the outer solar system, enabling faster and more robust missions in many cases.

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

Battelle Energy Alliance, the managing and operating contractor for INL, led the request for proposals, evaluation, and procurement sponsored by NASA using fiscal year 2021 appropriations. INL will award 12-month contracts to the following companies to each produce a conceptual reactor design that could support future mission needs:

BWX Technologies in partnership with Lockheed Martin; General Atomics Electromagnetic in partnership with X-energy and Aerojet Rocketdyne; Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies in partnership with Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation, Blue Origin, General Electric Hitachi Nuclear Energy, General Electric Research, Framatome, and Materion.

“INL is excited to enable the development of nuclear propulsion technology for potential use by NASA in future space exploration,” said Dr Stephen Johnson, national technical director for space nuclear power and director of the Space Nuclear Power and Isotope Technologies Division at INL. “Our national laboratories, working in partnership with industry, bring unparalleled expertise and capabilities to assist NASA in solving highly complex challenges that come with nuclear power and propulsion.”

At the end of the contracts’ performance periods, INL will conduct design reviews of the reactor concepts and provide recommendations to NASA. NASA will utilise the information to establish the basis for future technology design and development efforts.

NASA is also maturing a fission surface power system for use on the Moon and Mars. NASA intends to partner with the DOE and INL to release a request for proposals that asks industry for preliminary designs of a 10-kilowatt class system that NASA could demonstrate on the lunar surface. Maturing fission surface power can also help inform nuclear electric propulsion systems, another candidate propulsion technology for distant destinations.

NASA’s space nuclear technologies portfolio is led and funded by its Space Technology Mission Directorate. The agency’s Technology Demonstration Missions program manages the projects to mature affordable, reliable technologies and demonstrate system capabilities to meet power and propulsion needs for future deep space exploration. The program is based at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama.

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