Vice chief of the United States Space Force stated on July 28 that space vehicles fueled by tiny nuclear reactors, a technology which NASA hopes could help humans get to Mars sooner, could also be utilized for military operations in deep space. On a virtual event held by the Mitchell Institute, Gen. David Thompson noted that nuclear propulsion “holds enormous promise for major efficiency improvements compared to the standard chemical rockets.” “It pushes the boundaries of what you can do,” Thomson added.
Nuclear propulsion for space exploration has sparked NASA’s curiosity for decades. Officials expect that the Space Force may be forced to send missions beyond Earth’s orbit in the future. For long-duration missions in deep space, current chemical and electric space propulsion technologies have drawbacks and limitations. Thus, nuclear propulsion is worth exploring, according to Thompson. “As you, no joke, look at running long-term and sustainability in space, I think the country has to look at what its function is,” he added of nuclear energy. Thompson stated, “We know NASA is investigating into this.”
The Space Force envisions being able to deploy and maneuver satellites and other vehicles in cislunar space, the enormous region between the moon and the Earth. Traditional technologies, such as solar-powered devices, face a challenge as a result, according to Thompson. “The more away from the sun you are, the more difficult it is for the solar panels,” he continued. “Solar panels are bulky and flimsy, limiting your capacity to move quickly.”
Because there has been historical opposition to the usage of nuclear power, Thompson said the Space Force would also have to assess “policy considerations.” “However, the Space Force must carefully consider the benefits and potential of nuclear propulsion and nuclear power.” The Pentagon’s technology branch, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is planning a demonstration of a nuclear-powered space spacecraft.
In April, DARPA awarded General Atomics a $22 million contract to create a small nuclear reactor for space propulsion. It also awarded Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin $2.9 million and $2.5 million contracts, respectively, to create spacecraft models for the DRACO program, which stands for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations. Nathan Greiner, DRACO program manager, told SpaceNews on July 28 that the nuclear thermal propulsion will permit spacecraft to travel across the solar system pretty swiftly.
He claims that a mission that would require months or years with traditional propulsion might be completed in days or weeks. DARPA’s design is the nuclear thermal engine which utilizes nuclear fission to be able to heat liquid hydrogen, which is then used as a propellant to generate thrust. The reactor will receive the majority of the funding, according to Greiner, because it is the greatest technologically risky aspect of the project.