ANS Winter Meeting: Space—the next nuclear frontier

November 15, 2023, 12:00PMNuclear News

Put nuclear technology in space or on the moon, and just as on Earth it can provide a power density unmatched by any other source. But what roles can nuclear power and propulsion play as the world enters a 21st-century space race? That was a key question put to six speakers during the November 14 American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting plenary session “Space: The (Next) Nuclear Frontier.”

USNC gets NASA contract for NTP fuel assemblies and testing

October 19, 2023, 12:15PMNuclear News
Concept art of a nuclear thermal propulsion system. (Image: USNC)

Ultra Safe Nuclear (USNC) announced on October 17 that it had been awarded a contract by NASA to develop and mature space nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) systems to advance the nation’s cislunar capabilities. Under the contract, USNC says it will manufacture and test proprietary fuel and simultaneously collaborate with its commercial partner, Blue Origin, to mature the design of an NTP engine optimized for near-term civil science and cislunar missions.

Leading DRACO to launch: An interview with DARPA’s Tabitha Dodson

July 28, 2023, 2:59PMNuclear NewsSusan Gallier

Sometimes, even with decades of research and testing, a project never gets off the ground. That has been the case for U.S. nuclear thermal rockets—so far. Research began in the 1950s and peaked with a series of rigorous ground tests for NERVA—the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications—before the program was canceled in 1973. Five decades on, this technology has yet to make it to the launchpad. But while mission priorities shift, the physics is solid: Fission-powered nuclear thermal rockets (NTRs) still offer two to five times greater efficiency than conventional rockets.

NASA partners with companies for moon and exploration technology

July 27, 2023, 7:02AMNuclear News
Concept art showing Project Harmonia’s RSG for lunar surface missions. (Image: Zeno Power)

NASA has selected 11 companies, including Zeno Power, to develop technologies that could support long-term exploration on the moon and in space. The technologies range from lunar surface power systems to tools for in-space 3D printing, which will expand industry capabilities for a sustained human presence on the moon through the Artemis program, as well as other NASA, government, and commercial missions.

BWXT to provide engine, fuel for DARPA space project

July 26, 2023, 3:01PMNuclear News
Image: Lockheed Martin

BWX Technologies announced today that it has been selected to supply the nuclear reactor and fuel for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program—the goal of which is to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) engine in orbit.

DOE ramps up plutonium oxide production to fuel NASA’s deep space missions

July 20, 2023, 7:01AMNuclear News
ORNL has developed an automated metrology system to produce Pu-238 pellets. (Photo: ORNL)

The Department of Energy recently shipped half a kilogram of plutonium oxide pellets from Oak Ridge National Laboratory to Los Alamos National Laboratory, the agency announced July 18, marking the largest such shipment since the DOE restarted domestic plutonium-238 production over a decade ago.

USNC closes deal to build a microreactor factory in Alabama, delivers TRISO fuel

June 23, 2023, 9:30AMNuclear News
Concept art of the planned Gadsden, Ala., MMR assembly plant. (Image: Ultra Safe Nuclear)

Ultra Safe Nuclear (USNC) announced on June 21 that it has selected the city of Gadsden, Ala., to host a $232 million MMR assembly plant. Modules for the company’s high-temperature, gas-cooled and TRISO-fueled microreactor, dubbed the Micro-Modular Reactor (MMR), would be manufactured, assembled, and tested at the “highly automated facility once it is in operation.

Westinghouse, Astrobotic team up on lunar plans for eVinci microreactor

June 5, 2023, 12:01PMNuclear News
(Photo: Nielander/WikiCommons)

Westinghouse Electric Company says its eVinci microreactor technology is “100 percent factory built and assembled before it is shipped in a container to any location.” And “any location” is not restricted to planet Earth, given the company’s goal of sending a scaled-down version of eVinci to the lunar surface or on a mission to provide power in other space applications.

Student winners announced in NASA’s RPS contest

May 5, 2023, 9:30AMANS Nuclear Cafe
The three winners of NASA’s Power to Explore Student Writing Challenge, are, left to right, Luca Pollack, Rainelle Yasa, and Audrielle Paige Esma. (Image: NASA/Kristin Jansen and Gayle Dibiasio)

Three winners have been announced in NASA’s Power to Explore Student Writing Challenge, in which U.S. students in kindergarten through 12th grade could participate by writing about imaginary space missions using radioisotope power systems (RPSs). Out of almost 1,600 submitted entries, 45 semifinalists, and nine finalists, Luca Pollack of Carlsbad, Calif. (in the K–4th grade category), Rainelle Yasa of Los Angeles, Calif. (in the grades 5–8 category), and Audrielle Paige Esma of Wildwood, Fl. (in the grades 9–12 category) snagged the top prize in their age groups. The April 25 announcement by NASA includes links to the winning essays.

Atoms: Space travel plans

April 26, 2023, 3:00PMNuclear News

Earthbound air travel can be a hassle, even for careful planners. So if you’re heading to the Moon or beyond, it’s time to shift your planning into hyperdrive. Our advice, when there’s no guidebook, no proven vehicle, and your destination is a moving target? Don’t forget to pack your nuclear power bank.

Dynamic radioisotope power system development for NASA missions

April 21, 2023, 3:19PMNuclear NewsSal Oriti, Ernestina Wozniak, and Max Yang
The multimission radioisotope thermoelectric generator for NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is tested at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in 2020. The choice of an MMRTG as the rover’s power system gave mission planners significantly more flexibility in selecting the rover’s landing site and in planning its surface operations. (Photo: NASA)

Under the Radioisotope Power Systems Program, NASA and the Department of Energy have been advancing a novel radioisotope power system (RPS) based on dynamic energy conversion. This approach will manifest a dynamic RPS (DRPS) option with a conversion efficiency at least three times greater than a thermoelectric-based RPS. Significant progress has recently been made toward this end. A one-year system design phase has been completed by NASA industry partner Aerojet Rocketdyne, which resulted in a DRPS with power of 300 watts-electric (We) with convertor-level redundancy. In-house technology development at the NASA Glenn Research Center (GRC) has demonstrated the conversion devices in relevant environments and has shown all requirements can be met. Progress has also been made on the control electronics necessary for dynamic energy conversion. Flight-like controllers were recently upgraded and achieved an 11-percentage-point increase in efficiency. Control architectures have been developed to handle the multiconvertor arrangements in the latest DRPS design. A system-level DRPS testbed is currently being assembled that will experimentally demonstrate the DRPS concept being pursued.

Challenges facing our space nuclear future

April 11, 2023, 12:00PMNuclear NewsSara M. Sanders, Mikaela Blood, and Lisa D. May

Lisa D. May

Mikaela Blood

Sara M. Sanders

At the advent of space nuclear power in the 1960s, the combination of fundamental nuclear principles and first-of-its-kind spacecraft technology were the largest barriers to entry. In the modern era, however, nuclear power production and space technology have matured industries and no longer present major challenges. These days, the biggest hurdles are advanced flexible technology development, regulations and policy, and public perception, and these issues must be successfully navigated to clear the way for a nuclear future in space.

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.

Space needs a few good nukes

April 6, 2023, 7:00AMNuclear NewsJames Conca

We might actually be going back to the Moon . . . and then, on to Mars.

The Artemis program has been developed by NASA to accomplish this. Using innovative technologies, NASA will establish the first long-term human presence on the Moon, allowing a team of astronauts to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before.

With what is learned from the Artemis missions, NASA will take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars. This goal is for scientific discovery and the economic and technological benefits that have always come from the space program, but it will also inspire a new generation of explorers: the Artemis Generation.

IAEA launches comic book contest for teens

March 22, 2023, 3:00PMANS Nuclear Cafe

The International Atomic Energy Agency is inviting teens aged 14 to 18 to submit original comic book pages depicting a space-based nuclear science experiment on agricultural seeds that the agency is conducting with the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). The contest is offering prizes, including publication of the winning designs on the IAEA website, for the champion and finalists. The deadline for submissions is April 16.

University of Florida–led consortium to research nuclear forensics

February 2, 2023, 3:00PMNuclear News
Members of the Consortium for Nuclear Forensics. (Image: University of Florida)

A 16-university team of 31 scientists and engineers, under the title Consortium for Nuclear Forensics and led by the University of Florida, has been selected by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to develop the next generation of new technologies and insights in nuclear forensics.

Deadline approaching for abstract submissions to the 2023 NETS conference

January 27, 2023, 7:01AMANS News

This year the American Nuclear Society’s Nuclear and Emerging Technologies for Space (NETS 2023) conference, which will be held May 7–11, 2023, in Idaho Falls, Idaho, is focusing on powering the next era of space exploration through nuclear-enabled technologies and is sure to be the can’t-miss event of the year for those in the aerospace community.

DARPA’s nuclear rocket demo gets a boost from NASA’s Mars ambitions

January 24, 2023, 3:02PMNuclear News
Artist’s concept of the DRACO spacecraft, which will demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine. (Image: DARPA)

NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have announced they will collaborate on plans to launch and test DARPA’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO). DARPA has already worked with private companies on the baseline design for a fission reactor and rocket engine—and the spacecraft that will serve as an in-orbit test stand—and has solicited proposals for the next phase of work. Now NASA is climbing on board, deepening its existing ties to DRACO’s work in nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) technology—an “enabling capability” required for NASA to meet its Moon to Mars Objectives and send crewed missions to Mars. NASA and DARPA representatives announced the development at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech Forum in National Harbor, Md., on January 24.

Artemis I mannequin crew outfitted with dosimeters for trip around the moon

November 18, 2022, 6:53AMNuclear News
A rendering of Helga and Zohar side by side aboard the Orion spacecraft. (Image: NASA/Lockheed Martin/DLR)

NASA’s Artemis I mission, successfully launched at 1:47 a.m. EST on November 16 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, will travel 40,000 miles beyond the moon—farther from Earth than any human-crewed space mission has flown before. The historic trip was launched by the world’s largest rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), nearly 50 years after NASA last sent humans to the moon. And while no humans are on board the Orion spacecraft, two fabricated crew members—“Luna Twins” Helga and Zohar—were assembled with thousands of sensors to obtain the best estimates yet of cosmic radiation exposure to human tissues during space travel.

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.