One giant leap for mankind

29 November 2023

Nuclear is not only taking on some of mankind’s biggest challenges like climate change and energy security but it is also pioneering the next great frontier – space.

A recent clutch of space-based nuclear developments tips the nod to an area of significant growth for nuclear technologies.

US Space Nuclear Power Corporation, known as SpaceNukes, has teamed up with Lockheed Martin Corporation and BWX Technologies to take part in the JETSON project – the Joint Emergent Technology Supplying On-orbit Nuclear Power aims to produce small power reactors for space vehicles. Part of an Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate programme, the goal is for space vehicles to use fission for power instead of solar energy. JETSON will also develop support systems in critical areas, including power management, on-orbit mobility, thermal regulation,

and radiation shielding. This follows on from an earlier deal in which Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin and Westinghouse Government Services (WGS) won contracts totalling $60m from JETSON to advance technologies for nuclear powered space vehicles. This included a $9.4m Intuitive Machines contract to design a spacecraft concept that employs a compact radioisotope power system, electric or hybrid propulsion system. All three contracts run through to December 2025.

JETSON Programme Manager Lt Col Tommy Nix said the project will enable the Space Force to conduct missions beyond geosynchronous Earth orbit or above 22,000 miles from Earth. He said: “As we move farther and farther out from what our current mission set is, we’ll need higher power to cover the bigger volumes [of space]”.

Over the Atlantic and France’s Framatome also recently upped the ante by announcing the launch of Framatome Space “putting its 65 years of nuclear and industrial expertise at the service of the space industry”. Commenting in the venture Framatome CEO Bernard Fontana, said: “The space industry is looking to nuclear to facilitate faster and more efficient missions.”

Framatome is already working on a feasibility study on a nuclear-thermal propulsion engine. The design involves heating liquid hydrogen by passing it through a nuclear reactor core to transform it into gas at a high temperature, before ejecting it to generate thrust. Framatome says this would have two to three times greater efficiency than a conventional chemical engine and could halve time needed to travel to Mars from six to three months. The company is working to support France’s Atomic Energy Commission (CEA – Commissariat a` l’e´nergie Atomique et aux e´nergies Alternatives) and Ariane Group (a 50/50 joint venture between Airbus and Safran).

Meanwhile, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) is developing its own nuclear space propulsion system having won a contract from NASA. The deal will see USNC develop and mature Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) systems to advance US civil science and cislunar – within the orbit of the moon – capabilities, moving NTP from design to equipment manufacture.

USNC will manufacture and test it proprietary fuel and will collaborate with commercial partner Blue Origin to mature the design of an NTP engine specifically optimised for near-term missions. USNC said this marks a significant step forward. In addition to fuel assemblies, USNC will build and test critical safety systems for the NTP engine.

It clear then that space technologies are set to become far more important for the nuclear industry – not just for communications but for newer applications too. Space technologies are set to become far more important, not just for communications but newer applications too. Functions like remote monitoring, space-based earth observation and powering systems operating deeper in space will be joined by nuclear space propulsion and even emergent technologies such as space-based renewables. Indeed, the whole area is forecast to see significant development over the coming years.

But, given nuclear’s pivotal role in addressing some of the biggest challenges facing mankind, who better than the nuclear sector to drive the next giant leap forward?

By David Appleyard, Editor, Nuclear Engineering International

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