I was reading an otherwise serious story about nuclear power in space missions and was struck by a couple of odd things. Otherwise serious missions with cartoon names.
Let me start at the beginning. The story is that the US Air Force Research Lab has awarded defense contractor Lockheed Martin a $33.7 million contract to develop a space qualified nuclear power source. More specifically, this is to be part of the Joint Emergent Technology Supplying On-Orbit Nuclear (JETSON) effort to "mature high-power nuclear electric power and propulsion technologies and spacecraft design."
Wait. JETSON? As in George Jetson? OK...
JETSON aims to launch a fission reactor that will be started up once in space. The reactor will generate heat, which is then transferred to Stirling power converters to produce electricity. This can then be used to power spacecraft payloads or electric thrusters for propulsion.
Using a reactor to generate heat... to run Stirling engines, er, power converters to produce electricity? That sounds like that program called KRUSTY (Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology) that we talked about five years ago? As in Krusty the Clown?
Despite the cartoon names, this is a real mission with a serious looking "artist's concept" rendering.
Los Alamos National Laboratory's concept of a space nuclear reactor system to produce high-power electricity. (Image credit: LANL)
"Nuclear fission development for space applications is key to introducing technologies that could dramatically change how we move and explore in the vastness of space," Barry Miles, JETSON program manager and principal investigator at Lockheed Martin, said in a statement.
"From high-power electrical subsystem and electric propulsion to nuclear thermal propulsion or fission surface power, Lockheed Martin is focused on developing these systems with our important government agencies and industry partners," Miles added.
Lockheed will work with Space Nuclear Power Corp (SpaceNukes) and BWX Technologies, Inc. (BWXT), both of which have expertise in nuclear power and reactor design. The contract is to get from the preliminary design review (PDR) stage, with the option to go to critical design review (CDR) level. The source article doesn't describe how this will proceed.
This contract was apparently part of a trio announced back on September 29 but is just now getting talked about in sources I reference daily. The three contracts were related to JETSON. Intuitive Machines received a $9.4 million contract to design a spacecraft concept utilizing a compact radioisotope power system - and yes, that's the same Intuitive Machines that is preparing to launch their lunar lander mission NET January 12. The other contract was to Westinghouse Government Services, based in South Carolina, to continue research into utilizing high-power nuclear fission systems in spacecraft.
You might recall Lockheed Martin receiving a contract back in July that's along a similar direction, to build and develop a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) engine.
Lockheed Martin and BWX technologies under DARPA’s DRACO (the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations) program and in partnership with NASA will build the nuclear thermal rocket. NASA and DARPA are committing up to $499 million towards this program.
To editorialize just a little: it's about time. The future is undoubtedly nuclear and totally different propulsion from the chemical explosions we use now. As I said back in 2011, go outside on a clear, dark night. Wait until your eyes are used to the dark and look up. Everything you see that is shining by its own light is nuclear powered. Everything you see shining in reflected sunlight (the moon, the planets), all of that is lit by nuclear power. Now look toward your house or a nearby city. Everything you see is lit by chemical bonds being broken and re-established. As someone put it, "everything God powers is nuclear; everything man powers is fire." Pretty much true.