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?US Space Nuclear Power Corporation (SpaceNukes) has teamed with Lockheed Martin Corporation and BWX Technologies for participation in the Space Force/Air Force Joint Emergent Technology Supplying On-orbit Nuclear Power (JETSON) project. This is part of an Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Space Vehicles Directorate programme.

Earlier, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin and Westinghouse Government Services (WGS) won contracts totalling $60m from JETSON to advance technologies for nuclear powered space vehicles. The goal of the project is to advance nuclear fission technology to produce small power reactors for space vehicles. AFRL is seeking a reliable and constant source of electricity for satellites.

Intuitive Machines, a start-up based in Houston specialising in space infrastructure, received a $9.4m contract to design a spacecraft concept that employs compact radioisotope power system, electric or hybrid propulsion.

WGS, based in Hopkins, South Carolina, won a $16.9m contract to “mature relevant technologies, conduct analyses, trade studies, and explore risk reduction strategies to investigate how a high power, nuclear fission-system could be implemented from a subsystem, spacecraft, and architecture standpoint”.

Lockheed Martin Space, based in Denver, was awarded a $33.7m contract “to mature the technical design of the JETSON spacecraft systems and subsystems to a preliminary design review level of maturity, and to fully develop the overall programme development and test program planning through critical design review”.

All three contracts extend until December 2025. The three companies were selected by NASA in June 2022 for phase 1 studies of fission surface power systems, small nuclear reactors intended to support later phases of the Artemis lunar exploration campaign. Each team received $5m for initial design studies.

The US Department of Defense (DOD) announced that the initiative will allow AFRL to investigate how a “high power, nuclear fission-system could be implemented from a subsystem, spacecraft, and architecture standpoint”. JETSON Programme Manager Lt Col Tommy Nix told a virtual panel at the American Nuclear Society that AFRL aims to research more advanced power options for space projects.

After JETSON is completed, the US Air Force intends its spacecraft to use nuclear fission to harness power instead of solar energy. JETSON will also develop support systems in critical areas, including power management, on-orbit mobility, thermal regulation, and radiation shielding.

According to Nix, JETSON will enable the Space Force to conduct missions beyond geosynchronous Earth orbit, which extends. More than 22,000 miles from the Earth’s surface and is currently the furthest region used by military satellites. “As we move farther and farther out from what our current mission set is, we’ll need higher power to cover the bigger volumes [of space],” he noted.

DOD’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2021 awarded contracts to General Atomics, Blue Origin, and Lockheed Martin for the first phase of its Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) programme. DRACO aims to develop and place a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system above low Earth orbit in 2025.

JETSON is not a nuclear propulsion programme like DRACO. but is focused on developing nuclear power systems that can be used in space. To enable satellites or spacecraft to change position or carry sophisticated payloads more electrical power is required than can be supplied by conventional solar panels or battery-powered systems.

Nix noted that fission reactors can adjust their output, potentially providing the extra power on demand to drive more potent sensors and instruments, eliminating the need for batteries.

Image: Artist's impression depicting Kilopower reactor in space (courtesy of LANL)

Date: Thursday, 26 October 2023
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