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NASA and DARPA team up on nuclear rocket program

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has taken on NASA as a partner for a project aimed at demonstrating a nuclear-powered rocket that could someday send astronauts to Mars.

DARPA had already been working with commercial partners — including Blue Origin, the space venture created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, as well as Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies, or USNC-Tech — on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations program, also known as DRACO. USNC-Tech supported Blue Origin plus another team led by Lockheed Martin during an initial round of DRACO design work.

Now DARPA and NASA will be working together on the next two rounds of the DRACO program, which call for a commercial contractor to design and then build a rocket capable of carrying a General Atomics fission reactor safely into space for testing. The current plan envisions an in-space demonstration in fiscal year 2027.

“With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever – a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said today in a news release.

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A flying boat for Titan? It could happen…

NASA says it’ll distribute up to $2.45 million to 14 teams in support of experimental projects that would be right at home in the pages of a science-fiction novel — including a plan to send a flying boat to study the smoggy atmosphere and hydrocarbon-rich lakes of Titan.

The unconventional Titan probe was proposed by a former Boeing mechanic in Gig Harbor, Wash., who says his space venture — Planet Enterprises — is “pretty much a one-man band,” at least for now.

Two other researchers based in the Seattle area also won Phase 1 grants in the latest round of awards by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC. Each nine-month Phase 1 study grant is worth $175,000, and successful projects could go on to win additional funding during follow-up phases.

The NIAC program is designed to support out-of-this-world ideas that could eventually become reality. “These initial Phase 1 NIAC studies help NASA determine whether these futuristic ideas could set the stage for future space exploration capabilities and enable amazing new missions,” Michael LaPointe, program executive for NIAC at NASA Headquarters, explained in a news release.

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Nuclear power in space? Pentagon boosts two projects

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.

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Federal funding goes to nuclear propulsion systems

Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies and its partners are among three teams winning $5 million contracts from NASA and the Department of Energy to develop reactor designs for space-based nuclear thermal propulsion systems.

USNC-Tech’s partners include its parent company, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp., and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture — as well as General Electric Hitachi Nuclear Energy, General Electric Research, Framatome and Materion.

The team will work under the direction of the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory on a concept known as the Power Adjusted Demonstration Mars Engine, or PADME.

Another contract went to Virginia-based BWX Technologies for a reactor design that it will develop in cooperation with Lockheed Martin. General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems of San Diego received the third contract, and will partner with X-energy and Aerojet Rocketdyne.

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Space nuclear power is nearing critical mass

The idea of putting nukes in space may sound like a national security nightmare, but the right kind of nukes are likely to be a must-have for long-term space exploration.

At least that’s the way a panel of experts at the intersection of the space industry and the nuclear industry described the state of things this week during the American Nuclear Society’s virtual annual meeting.

“In order to do significant activity in space, you need power. And in order to get that power … it’s complicated,” said Paolo Venneri, CEO of a Seattle-based nuclear power venture called USNC-Tech.

Even if you build a hydrogen fuel production plant on the moon, or a methane production plant on Mars, the power to run those plants has to come from somewhere. And studies suggest that solar power alone won’t be enough.

“The sun, it’s great, but only within a certain region of the solar system,” Venneri said. “And so if you want to have sustained high-power applications, you need a nuclear power system.”

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Way-out technologies win NASA’s support

NASA’s latest crop of space technology grants will fund work on projects ranging from power-beaming lasers for lunar missions to high-temperature testing of components for nuclear-powered rockets.

Those are just a couple of the 365 concepts attracting a total of $45 million in grants from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, also known as SBIR and STTR.

Jim Reuter, associate administrator for the space agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said the release of the SBIR/STTR Phase I solicitation was accelerated by two months to help small-scale tech ventures cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

“At NASA, we recognize that small businesses are facing unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic. … We hope the expedited funding helps provide a near-term boost for future success,” Reuter said today in a news release.

This year’s batch of SBIR/STTR Phase I grants will go to 289 small businesses and 47 research institutions across the country. More than 30% of the awards are going to first-time NASA SBIR/STTR recipients.