The idea of placing nuclear weapons in space may seem like a national security nightmare, but the right kind of nuclear weapons are likely to be imperative for long-term space exploration.
At least that’s the way a panel of experts at the intersection of the space industry and the nuclear industry described the state of affairs this week during the Virtual Annual Meeting of the American Nuclear Society.
“To carry out meaningful activity in space, you need energy. And to get that power … it’s complicated, ”said Paolo Venneri, CEO of a Seattle-based nuclear power company called USNC technology.
Even if you build a hydrogen fuel production plant on the Moon or a methane production plant on Mars, the power to run those plants has to come from somewhere. And studies suggest that solar power alone won’t be enough.
“The sun is great, but only within a certain region of the solar system,” Venneri said. “So if you want to have sustained high-power applications, you need a nuclear power system.”
George Sowers, a space industry veteran who is now a professor of engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, has calculated the power requirements for a lunar operation that would mine polar ice for fuel, as well as drinking water and breathable air for future astronauts. . He estimates that it would take a 2 megawatt nuclear power plant to convert H.twoOr in hydrogen and oxygen.
Nuclear Power Is Also Being Studied For Propulsion In Space: Blue Origin From Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos one of the companies working on a Pentagon project to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion system beyond low Earth orbit by 2025. (Nuclear thermal propulsion systems generate heat to power rocket propellants, while nuclear electric propulsion systems generate electricity for ion thrusters.)
The project is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and is known as the Demonstration rocket for agile cislunar operations, or DRACO. Blue Origin business partners at DRACO are General atomic, which will design the nuclear reactor; and Lockheed Martin, who will work with Blue Origin on the spacecraft concept.
During DRACO’s 18-month initial design phase, General Atomics will receive $ 22.2 million, while Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin received $ 2.5 million and $ 2.9 million, respectively. DARPA will issue separate requests for future phases.
DARPA is interested in nuclear thermal propulsion because it promises to be up to five times more efficient than traditional chemical propulsion, with a thrust-to-weight ratio that is 10,000 times that of electric propulsion systems.
Venneri said that USNC-Tech is assisting Blue Origin and General Atomics in DRACO. “We are also working with Blue Origin on some other things, but that is a TBD. [to be determined] in terms of information, “he added.
USNC-Tech is also partnering on nuclear thermal propulsion research with Aerojet Rocketdyne, which has facilities in Redmond, Washington. Venneri said his company is involved in another collaboration with Seattle-based First Mode to develop a new type of rechargeable atomic battery for space missions. In the last few months alone, USNC-Tech has received grants from NASA totaling $ 250,000 for studies focused on atomic batteries and an ultra-high temperature facility to test materials that could be used in space for nuclear reactors.
In a sense, space nuclear power has been around for decades: Plutonium radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs, have provided electrical power for NASA missions ranging from Apollo moon landings and the Voyager deep space probes toward Rovers of curiosity and perseverance In mars.
Putting a full-blown nuclear reactor on a spaceship, or on the surface of the moon or Mars, would make things better. In 2004, NASA presented a plan to put a small-scale reactor on a probe that would have studied Jupiter and its moons, but the mission was canceled the following year, due to technical challenges and budget constraints.
NASA and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Safety Administration successfully completed ground testing of a next-generation nuclear reactor nicknamed KRUSTY in 2018 by NASA’s Kilopower space reactor program.
The goal of the program is to put a 10-kilowatt demonstration reactor on the lunar surface by as early as 2027. But Dave Poston, who designed the Kilopower reactor at Los Alamos National Laboratory and is the chief technology officer for a Los Alamos spin-off called Space Nuclear Power Corp. – says progress has been slow.
“Nothing has really happened in the last three years,” he said. NASA says it is still working on a request for proposals for a nuclear power system based on the Moon.
When it comes to nuclear weapons in space, security is a big issue: Under the current regulatory system, every launch of a plutonium generator has to receive presidential approval. Next-generation atomic batteries that use uranium instead of plutonium may not face such strict limits. However, projects that require the launch of nuclear material into space face close scrutiny.
Even within the nuclear industry, there is a debate about the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) versus low-enriched uranium (LEU) in space. Safety concerns are among the reasons NASA’s nuclear plans have stalled.
“I’m not going to debate between HEU and LEU here,” said Ron Faibish, senior director of business development for General Atomics’ Nuclear Materials and Technologies Division. “I believe that each system has its merits. I’m just going to say it’s a design thing and that you can design for safety. “
A. space policy directive that aired during the final days of the Trump administration could help smooth the way for nuclear power to become an accepted part of America’s space effort. But Rick Tumlinson, a longtime advocate of space commercialization and founding partner of a space-focused venture capital firm called SpaceFundsaid there is no room for mistakes.
“It is a very confusing area, because it is new, so you will have to work very carefully,” Tumlinson said. “The other challenge is that there are a couple of countries very interested in space that don’t have to worry about public opinion when it comes to launching nuclear weapons. And I could see them take a leap, while we’re all fighting over who regulates this and who does that. “
Will nuclear power become a factor America’s growing space rivalry with China? That really sounds like a national security nightmare.