For space agencies and the commercial space industry, the priorities of the next two decades are clear. First, astronauts will be sent to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era, followed by the creation of permanent infrastructure that will allow them to say there for extended periods. Then, the first crewed missions will be sent to Mars, with follow-up missions every 26 months, culminating in the creation of surface habitats (and maybe a permanent base). To meet these objectives, space agencies are investigating next-generation propulsion, power, and life support systems.
This includes solar-electric propulsion (SEP), where solar energy is used to power extremely fuel-efficient Hall-Effect thrusters. Similarly, they are looking into nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) and compact nuclear reactors, allowing for shorter transit times and providing a steady power supply for Lunar and Martian habitats. Beyond NASA, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) has partnered with Rolls-Royce to develop nuclear systems for space exploration. In a recent tweet, the international auto and aerospace giant provided a teaser of what their “micro-reactor” will look like.
The coming decades of space exploration will see astronauts return to the Moon, the first crewed missions to Mars, and robotic missions to the outer Solar System (among other things). These missions will leverage innovative technologies that allow faster transits, long-duration stays, and sustainable living far from Earth. To this end, NASA and other space agencies are investigating nuclear applications, especially where energy and propulsion are concerned. Many of these proposals have been on the books since the early space age and have been thoroughly validated.
On Tuesday, January 24th, NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced they were launching an interagency agreement to develop a nuclear-thermal propulsion (NTP) concept. The proposed nuclear rocket is known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO), which would enable fast-transit missions to Mars (weeks instead of months). This three-phase program will culminate with a demonstration of the DRACO in orbit, which is expected to occur by early 2027.
We live in an era of renewed space exploration, where multiple agencies are planning to send astronauts to the Moon in the coming years. This will be followed in the next decade with crewed missions to Mars by NASA and China, who may be joined by other nations before long. These and other missions that will take astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and the Earth-Moon system require new technologies, ranging from life support and radiation shielding to power and propulsion. And when it comes to the latter, Nuclear Thermal and Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP) is a top contender!
NASA and the Soviet space program spent decades researching nuclear propulsion during the Space Race. A few years ago, NASA reignited its nuclear program for the purpose of developing bimodal nuclear propulsion – a two-part system consisting of an NTP and NEP element – that could enable transits to Mars in 100 days. As part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program for 2023, NASA selected a nuclear concept for Phase I development. This new class of bimodal nuclear propulsion system uses a “wave rotor topping cycle” and could reduce transit times to Mars to just 45 days.
With the help of international and commercial partners, NASA is sending astronauts back to the Moon for the first time in over fifty years. In addition to sending crewed missions to the lunar surface, the long-term objective of the Artemis Program is to create the necessary infrastructure for a program of “sustained lunar exploration and development.” But unlike the Apollo missions that sent astronauts to the equatorial region of the Moon, the Artemis Program will send astronauts to the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin, culminating in the creation of a habitat (the Artemis Basecamp).
This region contains many permanently-shadowed craters and experiences a night cycle that lasts fourteen days (a “Lunar Night“). Since solar energy will be limited in these conditions, the Artemis astronauts, spacecraft, rovers, and other surface elements will require additional power sources that can operate in cratered regions and during the long lunar nights. Looking for potential solutions, the Ohio Aerospace Institute (OAI) and the NASA Glenn Research Center recently hosted two space nuclear technologies workshops designed to foster solutions for long-duration missions away from Earth.
What if we had the ability to chase down interstellar objects passing through our Solar System, like Oumuamua or Comet Borisov? Such a spacecraft would need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, with the capacity to increase speed and change direction quickly.
“Bringing back samples from these objects could fundamentally change our view of the universe and our place in it,” says Christopher Morrison, an engineer from the Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation-Tech (USNC-Tech) who submitted the proposal to NIAC.
If human beings intend to become an interplanetary species (or interstellar, for that matter), then we are going to need new propulsion methods that combine a significant level of thrust with fuel-efficiency. One option that NASA has been exploring for decades is spacecraft that rely on nuclear power, which can take the form of nuclear-electric or nuclear-thermal propulsion (NEP/NTP).
In the current era of space exploration, other space agencies are looking into this technology as well. For instance, the UK Space Agency recently signed a contract with the British automotive engineering firm Rolls-Royce. As per their duties, Rolls-Royce will investigate applications for nuclear power and propulsion. Given the company’s record of mechanical, electrical, and nuclear power solutions
In what’s likely to be one of the last space policy initiatives of his administration, President Donald Trump has issued a directive that lays out a roadmap for nuclear power applications beyond Earth.
Space Policy Directive 6, released on December 16th, calls on NASA and other federal agencies to advance the development of in-space nuclear propulsion systems as well as a nuclear fission power system on the Moon.
“Space nuclear power and propulsion is a fundamentally enabling technology for American deep space missions to Mars and beyond,” Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council, said in a White House news release. “The United States intends to remain the leader among spacefaring nations, applying nuclear power technology safely, securely and sustainably in space.”
In its pursuit of missions that will take us back to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond, NASA has been exploring a number of next-generation propulsion concepts. Whereas existing concepts have their advantages – chemical rockets have high energy density and ion engines are very fuel-efficient – our hopes for the future hinge on us finding alternatives that combine efficiency and power.
To this end, researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center are once again looking to develop nuclear rockets. As part of NASA’s Game Changing Development Program, the Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) project would see the creation of high-efficiency spacecraft that would be capable of using less fuel to deliver heavy payloads to distant planets, and in a relatively short amount of time.
As Sonny Mitchell, the project of the NTP project at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in a recent NASA press statement:
“As we push out into the solar system, nuclear propulsion may offer the only truly viable technology option to extend human reach to the surface of Mars and to worlds beyond. We’re excited to be working on technologies that could open up deep space for human exploration.”
To see this through, NASA has entered into a partnership with BWX Technologies (BWXT), a Virginia-based energy and technology company that is a leading supplier of nuclear components and fuel to the U.S. government. To assist NASA in developing the necessary reactors that would support possible future crewed missions to Mars, the company’s subsidiary (BWXT Nuclear Energy, Inc.) was awarded a three-year contract worth $18.8 million.
During this three years in which they will be working with NASA, BWXT will provide the technical and programmatic data needed to implement NTP technology. This will consist of them manufacturing and testing prototype fuel elements and helping NASA to resolve any nuclear licensing and regulatory requirements. BWXT will also aid NASA planners in addressing the issues of feasibility and affordably with their NTP program.
“BWXT is extremely pleased to be working with NASA on this exciting nuclear space program in support of the Mars mission. We are uniquely qualified to design, develop and manufacture the reactor and fuel for a nuclear-powered spacecraft. This is an opportune time to pivot our capabilities into the space market where we see long-term growth opportunities in nuclear propulsion and nuclear surface power.”
In an NTP rocket, uranium or deuterium reactions are used to heat liquid hydrogen inside a reactor, turning it into ionized hydrogen gas (plasma), which is then channeled through a rocket nozzle to generate thrust. A second possible method, known as Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEC), involves the same basic reactor converted its heat and energy into electrical energy which then powers an electrical engine.
In both cases, the rocket relies on nuclear fission to generates propulsion rather than chemical propellants, which has been the mainstay of NASA and all other space agencies to date. Compared to this traditional form of propulsion, both types of nuclear engines offers a number of advantages. The first and most obvious is the virtually unlimited energy density it offers compared to rocket fuel.
This would cut the total amount of propellant needed, thus cutting launch weight and the cost of individual missions. A more powerful nuclear engine would mean reduced trip times. Already, NASA has estimated that an NTP system could make the voyage to Mars to four months instead of six, which would reduce the amount of radiation the astronauts would be exposed to in the course of their journey.
To be fair, the concept of using nuclear rockets to explore the Universe is not new. In fact, NASA has explored the possibility of nuclear propulsion extensively under the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office. In fact, between 1959 and 1972, the SNPO conducted 23 reactor tests at the Nuclear Rocket Development Station at AEC’s Nevada Test Site, in Jackass Flats, Nevada.
In 1963, the SNPO also created the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) program to develop nuclear-thermal propulsion for long-range crewed mission to the Moon and interplanetary space. This led to the creation of the NRX/XE, a nuclear-thermal engine which the SNPO certified as having met the requirements for a crewed mission to Mars.
The Soviet Union conducted similar studies during the 1960s, hoping to use them on the upper stages of of their N-1 rocket. Despite these efforts, no nuclear rockets ever entered service, owing to a combination of budget cuts, loss of public interest, and a general winding down of the Space Race after the Apollo program was complete.
But given the current interest in space exploration, and ambitious mission proposed to Mars and beyond, it seems that nuclear rockets may finally see service. One popular idea that is being considered is a multistage rocket that would rely on both a nuclear engine and conventional thrusters – a concept known as a “bimodal spacecraft”. A major proponent of this idea is Dr. Michael G. Houts of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.
In 2014, Dr. Houts conducted a presentation outlining how bimodal rockets (and other nuclear concepts) represented “game-changing technologies for space exploration”. As an example, he explained how the Space Launch System (SLS) – a key technology in NASA’s proposed crewed mission to Mars – could be equipped with chemical rocket in the lower stage and a nuclear-thermal engine on the upper stage.
In this setup, the nuclear engine would remain “cold” until the rocket had achieved orbit, at which point the upper stage would be deployed and the reactor would be activated to generate thrust. Other examples cited in the report include long-range satellites that could explore the Outer Solar System and Kuiper Belt and fast, efficient transportation for manned missions throughout the Solar System.
The company’s new contract is expected to run through Sept. 30th, 2019. At that time, the Nuclear Thermal Propulsion project will determine the feasibility of using low-enriched uranium fuel. After that, the project then will spend a year testing and refining its ability to manufacture the necessary fuel elements. If all goes well, we can expect that NASA’s “Journey to Mars” might just incorporate some nuclear engines!
On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons space probe made history when it became the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of the dwarf planet of Pluto. Since that time, it has been making its way through the Kuiper Belt, on its way to joining Voyager 1 and 2 in interstellar space. With this milestone reached, many are wondering where we should send our spacecraft next.
Naturally, there are those who recommend we set our sights on our nearest star – particularly proponents of interstellar travel and exoplanet hunters. In addition to being Earth’s immediate neighbor, there is the possibility of one or more exoplanets in this system. Confirming the existence of exoplanets would be one of the main reasons to go. But more than that, it would be a major accomplishment!
In the past four decades, NASA and other space agencies from around the world have accomplished some amazing feats. Together, they have sent manned missions to the Moon, explored Mars, mapped Venus and Mercury, conducted surveys, and captured breathtaking images of the Outer Solar System. However, looking ahead to the next generation of exploration and the more-distant frontiers that remain to be explored, it is clear that new ideas need to be put forward on how to quickly and efficiently reach those destinations.
Basically, this means finding ways to power rockets that are more fuel and cost-effective while still providing the necessary power to get crews, rovers, and orbiters to their far-flung destinations. In this respect, NASA has been taking a good look at nuclear fission as a possible means of propulsion.
In fact, according to a presentation made by Doctor Michael G. Houts of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center back in October of 2014, nuclear power and propulsion have the potential to be “game-changing technologies for space exploration.”
As the Marshall Space Flight Center’s manager of nuclear thermal research, Dr. Houts is well-versed in the benefits it has to offer space exploration. According to the presentation he and fellow staffers made, a fission reactor can be used in a rocket design to create Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP). In an NTP rocket, uranium or deuterium reactions are used to heat liquid hydrogen inside a reactor, turning it into ionized hydrogen gas (plasma), which is then channeled through a rocket nozzle to generate thrust.
A second possible method, known as Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEP), involves the same basic reactor converting its heat and energy into electrical energy which then powers an electrical engine. In both cases, the rocket relies on nuclear fission to generate propulsion rather than chemical propellants, which has been the mainstay of NASA and all other space agencies to date.
Compared to this traditional form of propulsion, both NTP and NEP offer a number of advantages. The first and most obvious is the virtually unlimited energy density it offers compared to rocket fuel. At a steady state, a fission reactor produces an average of 2.5 neutrons per reaction. However, it would only take a single neutron to cause a subsequent fission and produce a chain reaction and provide constant power.
In fact, according to the report, an NTP rocket could generate 200 kWt of power using a single kilogram of uranium for a period of 13 years – which works out to a fuel efficiency rating of about 45 grams per 1000 MW-hr.
In addition, a nuclear-powered engine could also provide superior thrust relative to the amount of propellant used. This is what is known as specific impulse, which is measured either in terms of kilo-newtons per second per kilogram (kN·s/kg) or in the amount of seconds the rocket can continually fire. This would cut the total amount of propellent needed, thus cutting launch weight and the cost of individual missions. And a more powerful nuclear engine would mean reduced trip times, another cost-cutting measure.
Although no nuclear-thermal engines have ever flown, several design concepts have been built and tested over the past few decades, and numerous concepts have been proposed. These have ranged from the traditional solid-core design to more advanced and efficient concepts that rely on either a liquid or a gas core.
In the case of a solid-core design, the only type that has ever been built, a reactor made from materials with a very high melting point houses a collection of solid uranium rods which undergo controlled fission. The hydrogen fuel is contained in a separate tank and then passes through tubes around the reactor, gaining heat and converted into plasma before being channeled through the nozzles to achieve thrust.
Using hydrogen propellant, a solid-core design typically delivers specific impulses on the order of 850 to 1000 seconds, which is about twice that of liquid hydrogen-oxygen designs – i.e. the Space Shuttle’s main engine.
However, a significant drawback arises from the fact that nuclear reactions in a solid-core model can create much higher temperatures than conventional materials can withstand. The cracking of fuel coatings can also result from large temperature variations along the length of the rods, which taken together, sacrifices much of the engine’s potential for performance.
Many of these problems were addressed with the liquid core design, where nuclear fuel is mixed into the liquid hydrogen and the fission reaction takes place in the liquid mixture itself. This design can operate at temperatures above the melting point of the nuclear fuel, thanks to the fact that the container wall is actively cooled by the liquid hydrogen. It is also expected to deliver a specific impulse performance of 1300 to 1500 (1.3 to 1.5 kN·s/kg) seconds.
However, compared to the solid-core design, engines of this type are much more complicated and therefore more expensive and difficult to build. Part of the problem has to do with the time it takes to achieve a fission reaction, which is significantly longer than the time it takes to heat the hydrogen fuel. Therefore, engines of this kind require methods to trap the fuel inside the engine while simultaneously allowing heated plasma the ability to exit through the nozzle.
The final classification is the gas-core engine, a modification of the liquid-core design that uses rapid circulation to create a ring-shaped pocket of gaseous uranium fuel in the middle of the reactor that is surrounded by liquid hydrogen. In this case, the hydrogen fuel does not touch the reactor wall, so temperatures can be kept below the melting point of the materials used.
An engine of this kind could allow for specific impulses of 3000 to 5000 seconds (30 to 50 kN·s/kg). But in an “open-cycle” design of this kind, the losses of nuclear fuel would be difficult to control. An attempt to remedy this was drafted with the “closed cycle design” – aka. the “nuclear lightbulb” engine – where the gaseous nuclear fuel is contained in a series of super-high-temperature quartz containers.
Although this design is less efficient than the open-cycle design and has more in common with the solid-core concept, the limiting factor here is the critical temperature of quartz and not that of the fuel stack. What’s more, the closed-cycle design is expected to still deliver a respectable specific impulse of about 1500–2000 seconds (15–20 kN·s/kg).
However, as Houts indicated, one of the greatest assets nuclear fission has going for it is the long history of service it has enjoyed here on Earth. In addition to commercial reactors providing electricity all over the world, naval vessels (such as aircraft carriers and submarines) have made good use of slow-fission reactors for decades.
Also, NASA has been relying on nuclear reactors to power unmanned craft and rovers for over four decades, mainly in the form of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) and Radioisotope Heater Units (RHU). In the case of the former, heat is generated by the slow decay of plutonium-238 (Pu-238), which is then converted into electricity. In the case of the latter, the heat itself is used to keep components and ship systems warm and running.
These types of generators have been used to power and maintain everything from the Apollo rockets to the Curiosity Rover, as well as countless satellites, orbiters and robots in between. Since its inception,a total of 44 missions have been launched by NASA that have used either RTGs or RHUs, while the former-Soviet space program launched a comparatively solid 33.
Nuclear engines were also considered for a time as a replacement for the J-2, a liquid-fuel cryogenic rocket engine used on the S-II and S-IVB stages on the Saturn V and Saturn I rockets. But despite there being numerous versions of solid-core reactors produced and tested in the past, none were ever put into service for an actual space flight.
Between 1959 and 1972, the United States tested twenty different sizes and designs during Project Rover and NASA’s Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program. The most powerful engine ever tested was the Phoebus 2a, which operated for a total of 32 minutes and maintained power levels of more than 4.0 million kilowatts for 12 minutes.
But looking to the future, Houts’ and the Marshall Space Flight Center see great potential and many possible applications for this technology. Examples cited in the report include long-range satellites that could explore the Outer Solar System and Kuiper Belt, fast, efficient transportation for manned missions throughout the Solar System, and even the provisions of power for settlements on the Moon and Mars someday.
One possibility is to equip NASA’s latest flagship – the Space Launch System (SLS) – with chemically-powered lower-stage engines and a nuclear-thermal engine on its upper stage. The nuclear engine would remain “cold” until the rocket had achieved orbit, at which point the upper stage would be deployed and the reactor would be activated to generate thrust.
This concept for a “bimodal” rocket – one which relies on chemical propellants to achieve orbit and a nuclear-thermal engine for propulsion in space – could become the mainstay of NASA and other space agencies in the coming years. According to Houts and others at Marshall, the dramatic increase in efficiency offered by such rockets could also facilitate NASA’s plans to explore Mars by allowing for the reliable delivery of high-mass automated payloads in advance of manned missions.
These same rockets could then be retooled for speed (instead of mass) and used to transport the astronauts themselves to Mars in roughly half the time it would take for a conventional rocket to make the trip. This would not only save time and cut mission costs but also ensure that the astronauts were exposed to less harmful solar radiation during the course of their flight.
To see this vision become reality, Dr. Houts and other researchers from the Marshall Space Center’s Propulsion Research and Development Laboratory are currently conducting NTP-related tests at the Nuclear Thermal Rocket Element Environmental Simulator (or “NTREES”) in Huntsville, Alabama.
Here, they have spent the past few years analyzing the properties of various nuclear fuels in a simulated thermal environment, hoping to learn more about how they might affect engine performance and longevity when it comes to a nuclear-thermal rocket engine.
These tests are slated to run until June 2015 and are expected to lay the groundwork for large-scale ground tests and eventual full-scale testing in flight. The ultimate goal of all of this is to ensure that a manned mission to Mars takes place by the 2030s and to provide NASA flight engineers and mission planners with all the information they need to see it through.
But of course, it is also likely to have its share of applications when it comes to future Lunar missions, sending crews to study Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), and sending craft to the Jovian moons and other locations in the outer Solar System. As the report shows, NTP craft can be easily modified using modular components to perform everything from Lunar cargo landings to crewed missions to surveying Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs).
The Universe is a big place, and space exploration is still very much in its infancy. But if we intend to keep exploring it and reaping the rewards that such endeavors have to offer, our methods will have to mature. NTP is merely one proposed possibility. But unlike Nuclear Pulse Propulsion, the Daedalus concept, anti-matter engines, or the Alcubierre Warp Drive, a rocket that runs on nuclear fission is feasible, practical, and possible within the near future.
Nuclear thermal research at the Marshall Center is part of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Division, managed by the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and including participation by the U.S. Department of Energy.