NASA and DOE sign MOU on interplanetary nuclear propulsion

October 28, 2020, 12:09PMNuclear News

A “visionary view” of a nuclear thermal propulsion–enabled spacecraft mission. Image: NASA

Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on October 20 signed a memorandum of understanding to continue decades of partnership between the Department of Energy and NASA and to support the goals of NASA’s Artemis program. These include landing the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024 and establishing sustainable lunar exploration—using nuclear propulsion systems—by the end of the decade to prepare for the first human mission to Mars.

The scope: The new MOU was discussed during an October 20 meeting of the DOE’s Secretary of Energy Advisory Board. It is intended to support Space Policy Directive-1 and other U.S. national space policies through collaboration on topics that include scientific observations of the early universe from the moon; high-performance computing, modeling and simulation; planetary defense from near-Earth objects; space nuclear power and propulsion; space weather; and technology transfer.

Under the MOU, NASA and the DOE have established an executive committee of DOE and NASA employees, as well as three working groups that will report to the executive committee. The working groups will focus on lunar surface infrastructure, space nuclear power and propulsion, and science and innovation in areas such as space safety and planetary defense.

Quick turnaround: The working groups are to report back to the executive committee within six weeks. They are asked to provide one-page papers on the development of a multibillion-dollar plan to research, develop, test, and evaluate nuclear propulsion systems for Mars missions transporting astronauts, and the development, testing, and evaluation of the Artemis lunar base power supply and grid systems. The working groups are to include a legislative plan and funding framework for each topic.

What they’re saying: “From achieving a better understanding of the moon to providing the nuclear fuels to propel Voyager 1 and 2 into space, DOE and NASA have been strong collaborators in our nation’s space mission for decades,” Brouillette said. “This new MOU will continue our esteemed work together as this administration strives to reach the next generation of space innovations and exploration.”

Bridenstine said, “Artemis depends on a coalition of partners across U.S. government, industry, and the world. The DOE’s energy, science, and technology expertise remains crucial to the success of NASA missions. Together, we will mature and ready systems for exploring more of the moon and venturing humans farther into space, all for humanity’s benefit on Earth.”

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