When we talk about space travel, fission energy has a lot of meaning. Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) engines are more efficient, shorten travel times and carry heavier loads. And Lockheed Martin is hard at work designing an NTP engine for cislunar operations for DARPA’s DRACO program.
But fission can do more than power, so the US military took $33.7 million for Lockheed Martin – along with Space Nuclear Power Corp (SpaceNukes) and BWX Technologies, Inc. ( BWXT) – began 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 producing between 6 kWe and 20 kWe of electricity. Lockheed Martin claims it provides four times more energy than conventional solar panels without the need for constant sunlight. This technique comes directly from lessons learned from NASA’s Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) experiment, which is exploring how to deliver nuclear power to future outposts on the Moon and, eventually, Mars. .
“The development of nuclear fission for space applications is key to introducing technologies that will radically change the way we move and explore the vastness of space,” said Barry Miles, JETSON program. manager and principal investigator at Lockheed Martin, in a statement. press.
The fission engine is inert at launch and will not ignite until the JETSON spacecraft is in safe, decay-free Earth orbit. Once the fission reactor generates this energy, the electricity powers the Hall effect thrusters (a type of ion thruster that is electrified to create acceleration) already used in the company’s LM2100 satellites. Fission will provide the electricity needed for acceleration, but also for onboard systems and payloads.
This is the first time the US military has launched a nuclear reactor into space since 1965, when the US launched the experimental SNAP-10A nuclear propulsion satellite (which was also the first ion thruster in space). Lockheed Martin says the spacecraft will “enhance maneuver and power capabilities that will shape future space force operations,” and is currently in the preliminary design review phase.
In addition to Lockheed Martin, Houston-based Intuitive Machines received $9.4 million to develop a spacecraft using a compact radioisotope energy system, and South Carolina-based Westinghouse Government Services received funding to research high-power fission system for future spacecraft.
The role of fission on Earth is a complex subject, but when it comes to space, the technology applied to this purpose seems more obvious.