The idea of putting nukes in space may sound like a national security nightmare, but the right kind of nukes are likely to be a must-have 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 things this week during the American Nuclear Society’s virtual annual meeting.
“In order to do significant activity in space, you need power. And in order to get that power … it’s complicated,” said Paolo Venneri, CEO of a Seattle-based nuclear power venture called USNC-Tech.
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, it’s great, but only within a certain region of the solar system,” Venneri said. “And so if you want to have sustained high-power applications, you need a nuclear power system.”
George Sowers, a space industry veteran who’s now an engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines, has run the numbers on the power requirements for a lunar operation that would mine polar ice to produce fuel as well as drinkable water and breathable air for future astronauts. He figures it would take a 2-megawatt nuclear power plant to convert the H2O into hydrogen and oxygen.
Nuclear power is also being studied for in-space propulsion: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is one of the companies working on a Pentagon project aimed at demonstrating a nuclear thermal propulsion system beyond low Earth orbit in 2025. (Nuclear thermal propulsion systems generate heat to drive rocket propellant, 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’s commercial partners in DRACO are General Atomics, which will design the nuclear reactor; and Lockheed Martin, which will work with Blue Origin on the spacecraft concept.
During DRACO’s initial 18-month design phase, General Atomics is due to get $22.2 million, while Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin have been awarded $2.5 million and $2.9 million respectively. DARPA will issue separate solicitations for future phases.
DARPA is interested in nuclear thermal propulsion because it promises to be as much as five times more efficient than traditional chemical propulsion, with a thrust-to-weight ratio that’s 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion systems.
Venneri said USNC-Tech is helping out Blue Origin and General Atomics on DRACO. “We’re also working with Blue Origin on a few…