Air Force Research Lab Takes Giant Leap Into the New Space Age With Plans for Nuclear-Powered Spacecraft Systems

In a daring transfer that echoes ambitions from the earliest days of house exploration, the U.S. Air Drive Analysis Laboratory (AFRL) is revisiting the idea of nuclear-powered spacecraft. 

On September 29, AFRL introduced it had issued important contract awards to main business figures, together with Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse Authorities Providers, and Intuitive Machines, to progress the event of nuclear-powered reactors for future spacecraft designs. 

The choice marks a paradigm shift from conventional electrical and solar energy towards utilizing nuclear fission to gas the Air Drive’s next-generation satellites and house autos. 

The initiative stems from the Joint Emergent Expertise Supplying On-orbit Nuclear Energy Program, or JETSON, managed by the AFRL’s House Autos Directorate based mostly at Kirtland Air Drive Base in New Mexico. 

Throughout a digital panel hosted by the American Nuclear Society, program supervisor Lt. Col. Tommy Nix defined that JETSON goals to offer the House Drive with the flexibility to conduct missions past geosynchronous Earth orbit. Extending over 22,000 miles from the Earth’s floor, geosynchronous Earth orbit is at present the furthest area utilized by navy satellites. 

“As we transfer farther and farther out from what our present mission set is, we’ll want larger energy to cowl the larger volumes [of space],” Lt. Col. Nix emphasised. “In order that’s the place plenty of the give attention to our applications are.” 

Growing a nuclear-powered spacecraft is hardly a brand new idea. Launched in 1946, a joint Air Drive and Atomic Power Fee initiative, the Plane Nuclear Propulsion (ANP) program, spent over a decade and $1 billion attempting to develop a nuclear propulsion system for aerospace autos. 

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy canceled the ANP program, writing in a assertion, “Almost 15 years and about $1 billion have been dedicated to the tried growth of a nuclear-powered plane; however the potential of reaching a militarily helpful plane within the foreseeable future remains to be very distant.” 

“Mission Rover,” or The Nuclear Engine for Rocket Car Utility Program (NERVA), was one other joint effort to develop a nuclear thermal rocket engine for spacecraft, launched by NASA and the AEC in 1955. 

nuclear-powered spacecraft
Diagram that includes the Kiwi rocket engine developed beneath Mission Rover (Credit score: Atomic Power Fee/Public Area).

By 1969, NASA had efficiently developed and examined its NERVA-XE nuclear-powered engine “dozens of occasions” and supposed to make use of it for a crewed mission to Mars in 1978 and set up a everlasting lunar base by 1981. Nevertheless, NERVA was canceled by President Richard Nixon in 1973, earlier than any flight checks have been ever carried out. 

Starting in 1987, the U.S. once more examined the waters of nuclear propulsion beneath an unacknowledged particular entry program codenamed “Mission Timberwind.” This system was finally canceled in 1992 after it was uncovered by the now-director of the Federation of American Scientists Mission on Authorities Secrecy, Steven Aftergood. 

“Nearly as harmful a machine as any I can think about,” Aftergood would later describe Mission Timberwind’s intention to make use of a two-stage rocket connected to a nuclear reactor. “Sheer scientific adventurism.”

In 2003, NASA once more tried to develop nuclear-powered programs for long-duration house missions beneath a program codenamed “Mission Prometheus.” Nevertheless, this effort solely lasted three years and $442.6 million earlier than it was canceled in 2006. 

nuclear-powered spacecraft
Artist’s idea of Prometheus I, a proposed nuclear electrical propulsion (Credit score: NASA/Public Area).

In gentle of practically 80 years of failures, some aerospace consultants and Division of Protection officers imagine now could be the precise time to lastly harness nuclear house propulsion. 

On its web site, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) notes that “current know-how developments, together with political/world adjustments relative to house,” are creating “thrilling prospects” for nuclear vitality within the “new House Age.” 

In 2021, the DoD’s Protection Superior Analysis Tasks Company (DARPA) introduced it had awarded contracts to Basic Atomics, Blue Origin, and Lockheed Martin for the primary section of its Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program

In accordance to DARPA, DRACO goals to develop and place a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system above low Earth orbit in 2025. 

Through the American Nuclear Society digital panel, Lt. Col. Nix was cautious when discussing how JETSON differed from DRACO or how the 2 applications would possibly complement one another. 

“Whereas there’s some propulsion and issues that we’re to do with DRACO afterward,” Lt. Col. Nix stated. “Our focus proper now could be on nuclear manufacturing and making use of these to newer payloads and working in solar agnostic manners, in new architectures we’re at present planning and offering a power presence throughout new components of house as we increase exterior the Geo Bell.” 

Earlier bulletins have clarified that JETSON is just not a nuclear propulsion program like DRACO. As a substitute, the initiative is targeted on growing nuclear energy programs that can be utilized in house. 

AFRL
Idea photos of spacecraft utilized in future missions, the likes of that are being developed by NASA and the AFRL (Credit score: AFRL).

Aerospace consultants say the current return to nuclear-powered spaceflight is motivated by the continued house race between America and China and the U.S. navy’s should be extra maneuverable past Earth’s orbit. 


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For satellites or spacecraft to often change place or carry refined payloads requires extra electrical energy than standard photo voltaic panels or battery-powered programs can present. 

“At the moment, if we’d like a better energy, you need to both scope the upper energy into the photo voltaic panel design or you need to carry batteries to retailer that energy after which push it to {the electrical} system,” Lt. Col. Nix defined

Nevertheless, Fission reactors, Lt. Col. Nix factors out, can alter their output, probably offering further electrical energy on demand. This will drive stronger sensors and devices, eliminating battery dependence.

Current tendencies within the navy and industrial house sectors underscore the rising want for steady, high-energy programs within the upcoming period of house exploration. Whether or not this interprets to mastering nuclear-powered spacecraft remains to be unsure.

In line with the DoD, Lockheed Martin House was awarded $33.7 million to finesse the technical design of the JETSON nuclear-powered reactor. 

Westinghouse Authorities Providers will obtain $16.9 million to “conduct analyses, commerce research, and discover threat discount methods to analyze how a excessive energy, nuclear fission-system might be applied from a subsystem, spacecraft, and structure standpoint.” 

Lastly, Intuitive Machines was awarded $9.4 million to offer a brand new spacecraft idea and design that employs a “compact radioisotope energy system.” 

Every of the contracts will run till December 2025.

Tim McMillan is a retired regulation enforcement government, investigative reporter and co-founder of The Debrief. His writing covers protection, nationwide safety, and the Intelligence Group. You possibly can observe Tim on Twitter: @LtTimMcMillan.  Tim will be reached by e mail: tim@thedebrief.org or by means of encrypted e mail: LtTimMcMillan@protonmail.com 

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