For the First Time Since '65, the U.S. Military Will Blast a Nuclear Reactor Into Space

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The Pentagon Really Wants a Nuclear SpacecraftWong Yu Liang - Getty Images
  • The role of nuclear power may be up for debate on Earth, but in space, fission tech makes a lot of sense.

  • The U.S. military—after already awarding Lockheed Martin with a contract related to the DRACO program—is forking over another $33.7 million to the aerospace company to make a nuclear-powered spacecraft.

  • The spacecraft will use nuclear fission to power Stirling engines, creating electricity for propulsion, onboard systems, and payloads.

When it comes to space travel, fission power makes a lot of sense. Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) engines are more efficient, can shorten travel times, and can carry bigger payloads. And Lockheed Martin is already hard at work designing an NTP engine for cislunar operations for DARPA’s DRACO program.

But fission can do much more than simple propulsion, and that’s why the U.S. military is forking over $33.7 million for Lockheed Martin—along with Space Nuclear Power Corp (SpaceNukes) and BWX Technologies, Inc. (BWXT)—to start designing a nuclear spacecraft as part of the Joint Emergent Technology Supplying On-Orbit Nuclear (JETSON) project.

This technology demonstrator will use nuclear fission to power Stirling engines that produce between 6 kWe and 20 kWe of electricity—Lockheed Martin claims that this provides four times the power of conventional solar arrays without the need for constant sunlight. This technique comes directly from lessons learned with NASA’s Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) experiment, which investigated how to provide electricity via nuclear power for future outposts on the Moon and, eventually, Mars.

“Nuclear fission development for space applications is key to introducing technologies that could dramatically change how we move and explore in the vastness of space,” Barry Miles, JETSON program manager and principal investigator at Lockheed Martin, said in a press statement.

The fission engine is inert at launch and won’t turn on until the JETSON spacecraft is in a safe, non-decaying Earth orbit. Once the fission reactor creates this energy, the electricity will power Hall-effect thrusters (a kind of ion thruster that is electrified to create acceleration) that are already used on the company’s LM2100 satellites. While fission will provide the electricity necessary for acceleration, it will also provide power for onboard systems and payloads—a one-stop shop for all of the spacecraft’s energy needs.

This will be the first time that the U.S. military has launched a nuclear reactor into space since 1965, when the U.S. launched the SNAP-10A experimental nuclear-powered satellite (which was also the first ion thruster ever in space). Lockheed Martin says that the spacecraft will “enhance maneuver and power capabilities shaping future space force operations,” and is currently in the preliminary design review stage.

Apart from Lockheed Martin, the Houston-based Intuitive Machines received $9.4 million to develop a spacecraft using a compact radioisotope power system, and Westinghouse Government Services in South Carolina received funds to investigate high-power fission systems for future spacecraft.

The role of fission on Earth is a complicated subject, but when it comes to space, the technology is seeming more and more like a no-brainer.

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