Two Seattle companies have won Pentagon contracts to develop nuclear-powered prototypes for space applications, with orbital demonstrations set for 2027.
The Defense Innovation Unit says Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies has been tasked with demonstrating a chargeable, encapsulated nuclear radioisotope battery called EmberCore for propulsion and power applications in space.
Plutonium-powered radioisotope batteries have been in use for decades, going back to the Apollo era. For example, NASA’s Perseverance and Curiosity rovers are relying on such batteries to provide the heat and electricity for their operations on Mars.
EmberCore would provide 10 times as much power as those batteries, producing more than 1 million kilowatt-hours of energy using just a few pounds of fuel.
Another Seattle-based venture, Avalanche Energy, will receive backing from the Defense Innovation Unit to continue development of a compact fusion device known as Orbitron. The device, which is about the size of a lunchbox, would use electrostatic fields to trap ions in conjunction with a magnetron electron confinement system.
The resulting fusion reaction would produce energetic particles for generating either heat or electricity, which can power a high-efficiency propulsion system.