U.K. launches study into nuclear-powered space exploration

A new research contract between the U.K. Space Agency and Rolls-Royce will see planetary scientists working together to explore nuclear power as an energy source for deep space missions in the decades to come. The effort is similar to one that the United States is undertaking through NASA.

"Space nuclear power and propulsion is a game-changing concept that could unlock future deep-space missions that take us to Mars and beyond," said Graham Turnock, chief executive of the U.K Space Agency, on January 12. "This study will help us understand the exciting potential of atomic-powered spacecraft, and whether this nascent technology could help us travel further and faster through space than ever before."

The year in review 2020: Research and Applications

Here is a look back at the top stories of 2020 from our Research and Applications section in Newswire and Nuclear News magazine. Remember to check back to Newswire soon for more top stories from 2020.

Research and Applications section

New U.S. space nuclear policy released

An artist's concept of a fission power system on the lunar surface. Image: NASA

A national strategy for the responsible and effective use of space nuclear power and propulsion (SNPP)—Space Policy Directive-6 (SPD-6)—was released by the White House on December 16 as a presidential memorandum.

Space nuclear systems include radioisotope power systems and nuclear reactors used for power, heating, or propulsion. Nuclear energy can produce more power at lower mass and volume compared to other energy sources and can shorten transit times for crewed and robotic spacecraft, thereby reducing radiation exposure in harsh space environments. SPD-6 establishes a road map for getting space nuclear systems into service and sets up high-level goals, principles, and federal agencies’ roles and responsibilities.

Nuclear tech in space: What’s on the horizon?

Illustration of a Mars transit habitat and nuclear electric propulsion system. Image: NASA

NASA aims to develop nuclear technologies for two space applications: propulsion and surface power. Both can make planned NASA missions to the moon more agile and more ambitious, and both are being developed with future crewed missions to Mars in mind. Like advanced reactors here on Earth, space nuclear technologies have an accelerated timeline for deployment in this decade.

Space nuclear propulsion and extraterrestrial surface power are getting funding and attention. New industry solicitations are expected this month, and a range of proposed reactor technologies could meet NASA’s specifications for nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP). Nuclear electric propulsion could increase the feasibility of crewed missions to Mars with a shorter transit time, a broader launch window and more flexibility to abort missions, reduced astronaut exposure to space radiation and other hazards, expanded payload mass capabilities, and reduced cost.

NASA and DOE sign MOU on interplanetary nuclear propulsion

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.

NASA work on lattice confinement fusion grabs attention

An article recently published on the IEEE Energywise blog heralds “Spacecraft of the Future,” which could be powered by lattice confinement fusion. While lattice confinement fusion is not a new concept and is definitely not ready for practical applications, it has been detected within metal samples by NASA researchers at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, using an electron accelerator–driven experimental process.

One small step for fission—on the Moon and beyond

A reliable energy source is critical for long-duration space exploration. NASA, targeting launch readiness by the end of 2026, has teamed up with the Department of Energy and Idaho National Laboratory to solicit realistic assessments of fission surface power systems designed for deployment on the Moon that could, with little modification, be sent to Mars as well.

BWXT awarded contract to expand TRISO production line

BWX Technologies has signed a $26-million, 20-month contract to expand and upgrade its TRISO fuel manufacturing line. The recently announced deal, awarded by Idaho National Laboratory, calls for the expansion of BWXT’s capacity for the manufacture of TRISO fuel compacts and the upgrading of existing systems for delivering production-scale quantities of TRISO fuel.


The promise of nuclear thermal propulsion

The United States is pursuing the objective to land humans more than 100 million miles away on Mars, and nuclear power has the potential to be a key technology in getting to the Red Planet and providing power while there. Specifically, nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) is a promising approach that could enable astronauts to travel from Earth’s orbit to Mars and back in a fraction of the time, and with greater safety, than is available with other options.

Why Nuclear is an Emerging Technology for the Space Economy

Nuclear energy has played a key supporting role in historic missions to Mars, Pluto, and across the Solar System for the last 50 years. On January 1 2019, the nuclear-powered New Horizons flew by the most distant object ever observed up close - Ultima Thule, after it having already flown by Pluto in 2015.

Are the Tides Turning for Advanced U.S. Nuclear?

RadioNuclear.orgWelcome to the New Year!  Even though I am on the road, there is just so much happening lately in nuclear I could not pass up the opportunity to talk about it! This episode of RadioNuclear, we take a look at recent and exciting legislation and policy for advanced nuclear. This includes the passages of the NEIMA and NEICA bills and what the Idaho National Laboratory may look like in the coming years. We also discuss the NRC's recent decision on post Fukushima regulation. Lastly, we look on how you can adopt a dog from the Chernobyl exclusion zone. No, I am not making that up!

Listen: ANS Member Dr. Christopher Morrison on Space Radiation & More

TheSpaceShowANS member Dr. Christopher Morrison was a recent guest on The Space Show. Dr. Morrison covered space radiation, lifetime radiation limitations, legal limits, rodent GCR and radiation experimentation, terrestrial radiation simulations, space nuclear power & propulsion, super-cooling conductivity.

Navigating Nuclear with Bob Fine and Dr. Eric Loewen

Friday Matinee – How Nuclear Power Saves 1.8 Million Lives

NASA scientist Dr. Pushker Kharecha and Dr. James Hansen (the leading climate scientist in the US) recently authored a study which conservatively estimates nuclear power has saved 1.8 million lives, which otherwise would have been lost due to fossil fuel pollution and associated causes, since 1971.

The Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn

Cassini-Huygens is a Flagship-class NASA-ESA-ASI robotic spacecraft sent to the Saturn system. It has studied the planet and its many natural satellites since its arrival there in 2004, as well as observing Jupiter and the Heliosphere, and testing the theory of relativity. Launched in 1997 after nearly two decades of gestation, it includes a Saturn orbiter Cassini and an atmospheric probe/lander Huygens that landed in 2005 on the moon Titan. Cassini is the fourth space probe to visit Saturn and the first to enter orbit, and its mission is ongoing as of 2013.  It is powered by a plutonium power source, and has facilitated many landmark scientific discoveries in its mission to the stars.

Friday Nuclear Matinee: Low Energy Nuclear Reactions

The ANS Nuclear Cafe today brings faithful viewers a short interview with Dr. Joseph M. Zawodny, senior research scientist at NASA Langley Research Center. Zawodny discusses research on "Low Energy Nuclear Reactions" at NASA Langley, and the incredible potential of this new form of nuclear power-IF theory is validated by experimental results.