USNC-Tech and Blue Origin win contract for nuclear thermal propulsion research

Nuclear thermal propulsion system in space
An artist’s conceptions shows a spacecraft with a nuclear thermal propulsion system. (NASA Illustration)

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 to mature 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 Electomagnetic Systems of San Diego received the third contract, and will partner with X-energy and Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Battelle Energy Alliance, the managing and operating contractor for Idaho National Lab, led the request for proposals, evaluation and procurement with NASA sponsorship. The 12-month contracts call for each of the teams to produce a conceptual reactor design that could support future deep-space missions.

“These design contracts are an important step towards tangible reactor hardware that could one day propel new missions and exciting discoveries,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a news release.

Nuclear energy represents one of the frontiers of space propulsion technology. Nuclear thermal propulsion systems use the heat from an onboard reactor to drive propellants, while nuclear electric propulsion systems generate electricity for an ion drive. Such propulsion systems are considered more efficient than chemical rockets for missions beyond Earth orbit.

Blue Origin has a separate contract from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, valued at roughly $2.5 million, to work on the first phase of a program aimed at demonstrating a nuclear thermal propulsion system in space by 2025. General Atomics and Lockheed Martin are the other contractors in the program, known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO.

NASA says it also plans to partner with the DOE and INL on a request for commercial proposals to design a 10-kilowatt-class nuclear power plant that NASA could demonstrate on the surface of the moon. That project could also lead to the development of in-space nuclear electric propulsion systems.