In what’s likely to be one of the last space policy initiatives of his administration, President Donald Trump today issued a directive that lays out a roadmap for nuclear power applications beyond Earth.
Space Policy Directive 6 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.”
Space-based nuclear power isn’t exactly a new idea: NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission considered thermal nuclear propulsion – a concept that would have involved heating up propellants with a nuclear reactor – way back in the 1970s as part of Project NERVA.
A different kind of nuclear power, which relies on using the heat from radioactive decay to generate electricity, has been used to power space hardware ranging from Apollo lunar surface experiments to the Curiosity rover on Mars. (NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is due to land on Mars in February, also has a radioisotope power system.)
NASA once considered putting a nuclear electric propulsion system on a spacecraft known as the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, but that mission was canceled in 2005. Now there’s renewed interest in missions that require more power than can be generated by solar arrays – and that’s reviving interest in nuclear power for space applications.