Nuclear companies sign up for space technology missions

20 October 2023

With nuclear technology set to underpin new developments in space travel, NASA has awarded Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation a contract to manufacture and test fuel and develop the design of a nuclear thermal propulsion engine for near-term missions. Separately, Space Nuclear Power Corporation has partnered with Lockheed Martin Corporation and BWX Technologies for the US Space Force/Air Force's JETSON nuclear electric propulsion demonstration project, while Framatome has announced the creation of a new brand, Framatome Space.

A vision of nuclear thermal propulsion being used in space (Image: USNC)

The USD5 million NASA contract announced by USNC on 17 October will see the company manufacture and test the advanced, proprietary fuel it has already developed through internal research and development efforts. Simultaneously, the company will collaborate with its commercial partner, Blue Origin, to mature the design of a nuclear thermal propulsion engine which has been optimised for near-term civil science and cislunar (between the Earth and the Moon) space missions.

This latest contract will see nuclear thermal propulsion "move from the paper phase into hardware", Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) said. The effort will build on the foundations laid by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's DRACO - short for Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations - programme, which aims to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system in orbit by 2027.

Vishal Patel, USNC programme manager for Nuclear Propulsion, said the coming months will be a "critical and exciting" time for NTP, which still needs significant development before it is ready to be deployed to move "real" payloads in space. "This next year will get us prepared for operational missions achieving higher performance after the DRACO demonstration," he said.

USNC earlier this year delivered uranium nitride-coated uranium oxycarbide tristructural isotropic (TRISO) fuel to NASA's Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion programme. This latest contract builds on that delivery, with USNC manufacturing fuel assemblies for testing in prototypic conditions. The company will also build and test critical safety systems for the NTP engine, which is a prerequisite for eventual testing of the integrated nuclear system at a DOE site, USNC Chief Scientist for Advanced Technologies Michael Eades said.

SpaceNukes joins JETSON

The JETSON - Joint Emergent Technology Supplying On-orbit Nuclear Power - nuclear electric propulsion demonstration project was launched in January when the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL)/Space Vehicle Directorate issued solicitations to industry for high and low-power spacecraft concepts and designs using nuclear fission, rather than solar panels, for propulsion. On 3 October, the AFRL awarded Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse Government Services and Intuitive Machines LLC separate contracts totalling over USD53 million to develop the technologies and spacecraft concepts.

Space Nuclear Power Corporation (SpaceNukes), which is commercialising Kilopower space fission reactor technology under licence from Los Alamos National Laboratory, announced on 16 October that it has partnered with Lockheed Martin Corporation and BWX Technologies for the JETSON project. Lockheed Martin-Space is to provide the spacecraft portion of the work; SpaceNukes will design and guide the assembly of the nuclear reactor power system which will provide electrical power to the spacecraft; and BWX Technologies will "bring their extensive experience in reactor development and manufacturing to ensure the reactor design is fit for the purpose," SpaceNukes said.

SpaceNukes co-founder and CEO Andy Phelps said the New Mexico-based company has already taken the Kilopower design to "much higher" power levels than the 1 kWe reached in the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (also known as KRUSTY) demonstration carried out at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2017-2018.

"The potential of fission power in space is immense and the US must start with a small step to create the expertise and infrastructure needed to provide truly astounding and game-changing capabilities," he said.

Framatome joins space race

Framatome has announced the creation of Framatome Space, which it said is putting the French company's 65 years of nuclear and industrial expertise at the service of the space industry. The company is already supporting the French Alternative Energies & Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and Ariane Group with a feasibility study on an nuclear thermal propulsion engine and earlier this year announced plans with USNC to form a joint venture to manufacture TRISO particles on a commercial scale.

"Framatome is proud to be part of the new age of space travel. We already supply the space industry with domes for the tanks of launchers and hafnium for the hardened alloys for spacecraft. With the creation of Framatome Space we are taking things to the next level," CEO Bernard Fontana said. "The space industry is looking to nuclear to facilitate faster and more efficient missions. Who better than Framatome, with over six decades of experience and expertise in nuclear power, to contribute to the next giant leap for mankind?"

Vice President, Strategy at Framatome and Framatome Space Grégoire Lambert said the company is ready to play a "decisive role" in the future of space exploration. "We firmly believe that nuclear is a game changer to provide the amount of energy needed by any development," he said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News