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Cosmic Space

President Trump boosts nuclear power in space

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.

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Cosmic Space

Nuclear power on the moon? It could happen by 2028

Nuclear energy has played a role in lunar exploration since the golden days of the Apollo moon program, when radioisotope power systems provided the wattage for scientific experiments.

Today such systems continue to power interplanetary spacecraft, ranging from the decades-old Voyager probes in interstellar space to the Perseverance rover that’s on its way to Mars. And now the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA are kicking things up a notch.

Tracey Bishop, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear infrastructure programs at the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Office, provided a preview today during a virtual roundtable discussion focusing on the department’s role in space exploration.

“This summer the department, along with NASA, has initiated an activity to look at doing a demonstration for fission surface power systems on the moon in the 2027, 2028 time frame, ” Bishop said.

She said potential partners from the nuclear power industry as well as the aerospace industry showed up for a “very engaging Industry Day” last month. “We’re looking forward to issuing a request for proposals from industry sometime this fall,” Bishop said.

The lunar demonstration project would follow up on the research conducted as part of the NASA-DOE Kilopower program, which successfully demonstrated a small-scale nuclear power system in Nevada a couple of years ago.

And that’s not all: The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within DOE, is working with the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on a road map for developing nuclear thermal propulsion systems.

“What DARPA is trying to do is, they’re trying to have a demonstrator that will fly in the 2025 time frame,” said Kevin Greenaugh, assistant deputy administrator for strategic partnership programs.

It’s early in the process, but federal officials eventually plan to turn to industry experts for help in designing what basically would be a nuclear rocket engine, Greenaugh said.

The project — known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO — would use nuclear power to heat rocket propellants to temperatures high enough to produce thrust. Such a system would be two to five times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion, resulting in huge time savings for missions ranging from repositioning satellites to sending astronauts to Mars.

NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission tried to get a nuclear rocket called NERVA off the ground back in the 1960s.

“We did enough to understand what it was going to take, what the technical challenges are, and the fact that these [technologies] really are enabling for doing things such as certainly sending crews to Mars,” said Ralph McNutt, the chief scientist for space science at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

Project NERVA fizzled in the post-Apollo era, due to shrinking space budgets as well as growing safety concerns about nuclear power. But now America’s space ambitions are on the rise again, and next-generation nuclear power concepts are raising confidence that the safety concerns can be adequately addressed.

“The advanced modular reactors are certainly adaptable to be used in earthbound applications, too,” said former U.S. Rep. Robert Walker, who now heads a space policy consulting firm called moonWalker Associates. “That’s where a lot of the work is being done right now.”

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said following through on the concept could yield big payoffs.

“Nuclear propulsion could potentially cut the time of space travel to Mars by as much as half, which increases mission flexibility — which can be a true game changer for a Mars mission,” he said. “We’d like to get to Mars and back on ‘one tank of gas.’ That’s our goal, and that’s what we’re working for.”

Paul Dabbar, DOE’s under secretary for science, added that “it’s not just about getting to where we’re going, but it’s also about what we want to do when we get there.”

That’s where the interest in surface-based nuclear power comes to the fore. After all, if billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk envision building whole cities on the moon and on Mars, the power’s got to come from somewhere.

Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said future space settlements will almost certainly be built as public-private partnerships — with federal agencies like NASA and DOE blazing the technological trails for commercial ventures to follow.

“NASA has seen this in spades, when they did the development of resupplying cargo and crew to the ISS [International Space Station],” he said. “The government estimates that it saved between 20 and 30 billion dollars, compared to the traditional methods.”

So what will those extraterrestrial power systems look like? Will the moon go all-nuclear? Probably not, said Ben Reinke, executive director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Strategic Planning and Programs. Off-Earth settlements are more likely to rely on a mix of solar and nuclear power — plus batteries to store surplus electricity, as well as stores of hydrogen and oxygen that could be produced from ice on the moon or Mars.

“What you’re really talking about is a very small microgrid that has the same types of challenges that we have here on Earth,” he said. “You need some amount of power that would be baseload power. … And then on top of that, you would probably have some types of variable power, and a storage and distribution system that works for the proper size of that case.”

It turns out that nuclear fission isn’t the only option for energy on the moon: Reinke said lightweight, highly efficient perovskite solar cells could come into play. And who knows? Decades from now, nuclear fusion may even be part of the mix, with ample supplies of helium-3 fuel available on the lunar surface.

All of those technologies are part of the Department of Energy’s portfolio — so maybe Secretary Brouillette has a point when he says the DOE in his agency’s acronym could just as well stand for “Department of Exploration.”

Full disclosure: I served as the moderator for today’s virtual roundtable presentation, titled “Department of Exploration: Because You Can’t Get to Space Without the U.S. Department of Energy.”

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GeekWire

Blue Origin breaks ground on Alabama factory

Blue Origin groundbreaking
United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno and Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith are front and center for a groundbreaking ceremony at the future site of Blue Origin’s rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Ala. (City of Huntsville Photo via Twitter)

Civic leaders and space executives tossed shovels of dirt today to celebrate the groundbreaking for a $200 million rocket engine factory to be built in Alabama by Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos.

“It’s a great day here in Rocket City, and it will be that way for years to come,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith declared during the ceremony at Cummings Research Park in Huntsville, Ala.

Smith told the assembled crowd, “Blue Origin is all in on Alabama.”

The 200,000-square-foot facility is to open in March 2020 and manufacture BE-4 rocket engines for Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket as well as for United Launch Alliance’s next-generation, semi-reusable Vulcan rocket. ULA’s rocket production facility is located nearby in Decatur, Ala.

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Stratolaunch’s rocket preburner hits full power

Stratolaunch preburner test
The preburner for Stratolaunch’s PGA rocket engine blazes during a hot-fire test. (Stratolaunch via Twitter)

Chalk up another milestone for Stratolaunch Systems’ rocket engine development effort: The Seattle-based space company founded by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen says it ramped up the preburner for its PGA rocket engine to full power this week during hot-fire tests.

Stratolaunch’s 3D-printed preburner, a key component that typically begins a rocket engine’s combustion process, had its first hot firing less than a month ago at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. And just a year ago, the hardware was merely a twinkle in the eye of Stratolaunch’s engineers.

“Per public records, this is the fastest preburner development in U.S. history,” Hanna Steplewska Kubiak, Stratolaunch’s vice president of business development,  tweeted.

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Stratolaunch fires up its rocket engine preburner

Preburner test firing
A full-scale fuel preburner for Stratolaunch’s PGA rocket engine undergoes a test firing at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. (Stratolaunch Photo)

Stratolaunch Systems, the space venture founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, says it has successfully completed the first hot-fire test of a key component for its hydrogen-fueled PGA rocket engine.

The full-scale hydrogen preburner was fired up last Friday at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, less than a year after design work started.

“This is the first step in proving the performance and highly efficient design of the PGA engine. The hot-fire test is an incredible milestone for both the propulsion team and Stratolaunch,” Jeff Thornburg, vice president of propulsion at Stratolaunch, said today in a news release.

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Stratolaunch lifts the veil on PGA rocket engine

Stratolaunch PGA rocket engine
An artist’s conception shows Stratolaunch’s PGA rocket engine. (Stratolaunch Illustration)

The name of Stratolaunch Systems’ home-grown rocket engine leaves no doubt about who’s footing the bill: It’s called the PGA, as in Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen.

Stratolaunch has made glancing references to its in-house propulsion system development program over the past few months — for example, in its announcement about the full line of rocket-powered vehicles intended for midflight launch from its super-jumbo airplane, or in its proposed roadmap for hypersonic flight tests.

But the PGA rocket engine took center stage today in a report from Aviation Week and in a series of photos released by the Stratolaunch team.

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Stratolaunch plans new rockets (and space plane)

Stratolaunch lineup
Artwork shows Stratolaunch’s giant carrier plane and several classes of launch vehicles, including Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket, a medium-class rocket and its heavy-lift variant, and a fully reusable space plane. (Stratolaunch Illustration)

Stratolaunch, the space venture created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2011, today provided the first details about a new family of launch vehicles it has in the works, including two types of rockets and a reusable space plane that could someday carry astronauts to orbit.

The revelation follows up on rumblings that Stratolaunch has been working on its own rockets and a “Black Ice” space plane, along with the world’s biggest airplane to launch them from.

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NASA’s SLS rocket engine test gets cut short

NASA put a developmental model of the RS-25 engine for its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket through a hot-fire test today at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in attendance. Although the test firing ended at 319 seconds rather than the originally planned 500 seconds, officials said the test achieved all its planned objectives.

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Blue Origin shows off upper-stage rocket engine

BE-3U rocket engine testing
Blue Origin’s BE-3U upper-stage rocket engine undergoes testing. (Blue Origin via Twitter)

Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is sharing a short video clip featuring the lesser-known rocket engine for its orbital-class New Glenn rocket.

The spotlight on the hydrogen-fueled BE-3U engine comes amid reports that Blue Origin is rapidly ramping up its New Glenn development program — and amid questions over whether Blue Origin can start launching New Glenn by the end of 2020, as originally planned.

There’s also lots of activity relating to other aspects of Bezos’ aspirations.

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HyperSciences wins support for ram accelerator

Mark Russell
HyperSciences CEO Mark Russell holds a test projectile that is used in the company’s ram accelerator system. (HyperSciences via YouTube)

Things are looking up, and looking down, for HyperSciences Inc. Either way, that’s good news for the four-year-old hypersonic startup in Spokane, Wash., and for its founder and CEO, Mark Russell.

Hypersciences’ key technology is a ram accelerator system that can be used to drill downward into rock up to 10 times more quickly than traditional methods — or send a projectile upward at 6,700 mph, roughly nine times the speed of sound.

The drilling application, known as HyperDrill, won more than $1 million in support from Shell Global’s GameChanger program for early-stage technology development. In May, Shell sent HyperSciences a non-binding letter of intent to provide another $250,000 in development funding, potentially leading to a $2.5 million field trial.

Also in May, NASA awarded HyperSciences a $125,000 Small Business Innovation Research Phase I grant to develop a hypersonic launch system based on the company’s HyperCore ram accelerator technology.

“There’s a new way to fly,” Russell told GeekWire.

To take HyperSciences to the next level, Russell and his team have turned to SeedInvest, an online platform for equity-based crowdfunding,

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