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The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said on 13 July it was leading an effort, working with the Department of Energy (DOE), to advance space nuclear technologies. The government team has selected three reactor design concept proposals for a nuclear thermal propulsion system. The reactor is a critical component of a nuclear thermal engine, which would utilise high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel.

Date: Friday, 16 July 2021
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Plants could be used for missions to Mars A NASA illustration of a conceptual spacecraft using nuclear thermal propulsion. Courtesy NASA. NASA has selected three teams of companies to perform concept studies of nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) reactors while making plans to fund similar studies for nuclear surface power systems.

Each contract is worth approximately $5m and will last one year.

One contract will go to BWX Technologies, working with Lockheed Martin. A second contract will go to General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems, working with X-energy and Aerojet Rocketdyne. The third will go to Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies, working with its parent company, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation, as well as Blue Origin, General Electric Hitachi Nuclear Energy, General Electric Research, Framatome and Materion.

All three studies are focused on developing a design for a reactor that would be part of a future NTP system. That reactor would heat up a propellant such as liquid hydrogen, generating thrust at far higher efficiencies than conventional propulsion systems and enabling shorter transit times for missions to Mars.

Date: Friday, 16 July 2021
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