Seattle-based USNC-Tech has gotten the green light from NASA to continue development of a rapid-response spacecraft that would use a nuclear-powered propulsion system for deep-space exploration.
The company’s proposed Nyx mission is one of six projects receiving Phase II grants from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC. Each grant provides up to $600,000 of support over the course of two years to follow up on Phase I NIAC projects.
USNC-Tech, the advanced-technology arm of Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp., has been working on a next-generation radioisotope thermoelectric generator known as EmberCore. RTGs are basically batteries powered by the decay of radioactive material. They’ve been used for decades for missions ranging from Apollo moonshots to Mars rover treks and deep-space odysseys. EmberCore promises to provide 10 times as much electrical power as the current generation of RTGs.
For the Nyx mission, USNC-Tech envisions adapting EmberCore for an electric propulsion system that could propel a spacecraft to extremely high speeds. “The spacecraft architecture is capable of incredible delta-V on the order of 50-100 km/s,” USNC-Tech’s Christopher Morrison says in the company’s proposal. That would translate to 110,000 to 220,000 mph.
Such spacecraft could theoretically catch up with mysterious interstellar objects like ‘Oumuamua, which zoomed through our solar system in 2017. Other potential missions include detection of objects in the far-flung Kuiper Belt, parallax microlensing to look for free-floating planets, and fast trips beyond the solar system’s zodiacal glow.