How has student research in nuclear thermal rockets shaped your career plans?

April 6, 2023, 3:00PMNuclear NewsMiguel Alessandro Lopez

Miguel Alessandro Lopez

At the University of Rhode Island, I initially enrolled as a candidate for an accelerated track to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, with a minor in nuclear engineering. My objective was to concentrate on reactor power design and join efforts to make nuclear energy safer, more efficient, and less stigmatized.

My plans changed after I attended a guest presentation on high-performance nuclear thermal propulsion (HP-NTP) led by Michael Houts, manager of NASA Nuclear Research at Marshall Space Flight Center. He posted his email address on one of the last slides, so I took a chance and contacted him about potential research opportunities and thesis work. As it turned out, that one little email ultimately led to four NASA-sponsored design projects at URI—two are complete, and two are in progress—as well as my thesis. My research has been on HP-NTP, specifically the centrifugal nuclear thermal rocket (CNTR) design. In that design, liquid uranium is heated to extremely high temperatures in a cylinder that is rotated between 5,000 and 7,000 revolutions per minute as liquid hydrogen passes through the center of the cylinder, where it is heated and expanded, exiting as a propellant while the liquid uranium is retained by centrifugal force.

GA’s delivery of DRACO nuclear rocket design supports FY 2026 in-orbit demo goal

November 10, 2022, 9:30AMNuclear News
(Image: General Atomics)

General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) has completed the baseline design of a reactor and engine for a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) rocket and has successfully tested key reactor components under contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the company announced on November 7. The work was performed under a Track A, Phase 1 contract for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program; Phases 2 and 3 of DRACO could culminate in a demonstration of the nuclear-propelled spacecraft in cislunar space (the region between the Earth and the Moon) during fiscal year 2026.

Defense agency invests in fusion- and radioisotope-powered space propulsion

May 19, 2022, 9:30AMNuclear News
Artist’s rendering of USNC spacecraft using EmberCore. (Image: DIU)

The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), a Department of Defense organization focused on swiftly putting commercial technology to use in the U.S. military, has awarded contracts for two nuclear technologies—compact fusion and radioisotope heat—for spacecraft that could carry a high-power payload and freely maneuver in cislunar space. The objective is to accelerate ground and flight testing and launch a successful orbital prototype demonstration of each approach in 2027.

DOD seeks in-space demo of nuclear rocket engine in FY 2026

May 9, 2022, 12:00PMNuclear News

The Department of Defense wants to deploy spacecraft in cislunar space—the area between Earth and the moon’s orbit—with thrust and agility that only nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) can provide. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), through its Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, is looking to private industry for the design, development, fabrication, assembly, and testing of a nuclear thermal rocket engine fueled with high-assay low-enriched uranium fuel to heat a liquid hydrogen propellant.

GA’s Christina Back: U.S. “absolutely needs to be in cislunar space”

April 20, 2021, 7:00AMNuclear News
Image: DARPA

The U.S. Department of Defense is aiming to demonstrate a novel nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system above low Earth orbit by 2025. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced on April 12 that following a competitive solicitation process, it has awarded a contract to General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) for the design of the nuclear reactor that will power the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO). Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin will work on a parallel track to design a spacecraft tailor-made to demonstrate the NTP system.

Gates highlights nuclear’s role in fighting climate change

February 19, 2021, 9:29AMANS Nuclear Cafe


Bill Gates is making the media rounds to promote his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, which was released on Tuesday. Along the way, he’s been touting nuclear energy as part of his master plan for battling climate change.

60 Minutes: Gates kicked off the week with an appearance on 60 Minutes on Sunday. During the nearly 15-minute segment with correspondent Anderson Cooper, Gates discussed TerraPower, the company he founded in 2006 that is dedicated to nuclear innovation. “Nuclear power can be done in a way that none of those failures of the past would recur, because just the physics of how it's built,” Gates said, referring to TerraPower’s Natrium reactor. “I admit, convincing people of that will be almost as hard as actually building it. But since it may be necessary to avoid climate change, we shouldn't give up.”