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US Space Force Leader Touts Use of Nuclear Reactors for Space Missions

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US Space Force Leader Touts Use of Nuclear Reactors for Space Missions

A top U.S. Space Force official said small nuclear reactors are a viable option for powering space missions.

Speaking at a virtual forum hosted by the Mitchell Institute, Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson argued that nuclear propulsion could enable long-endurance exploration in areas like cislunar space, which could be a problem for spacecraft driven by traditional technologies such as solar-powered systems.

Thompson noted, however, that there are “policy considerations” that the Space Force has to assess in pursuing nuclear-powered missions, SpaceNews reported.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking to demonstrate the viability of a nuclear-powered space vehicle through its Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations program.

General Atomics received a $22 million contract from DARPA to design a small nuclear reactor for space propulsion. Smaller contracts totaling $5.2 million were awarded to Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin to design DRACO spacecraft concepts.

Initial work by these contractors will support the risk reduction phase of the DRACO program.

DRACO program manager Nathan Greiner told SpaceNews that nuclear thermal propulsion systems have the potential to shorten the time it takes for spacecraft to travel through space. 

NASA is also doing its part in advancing space nuclear technologies. The space agency, together with the Department of Energy, recently awarded contracts to BWX Technologies, General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems and Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies to produce conceptual reactor designs for a nuclear thermal propulsion system.

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Category: Space

Tags: David Thompson DRACO NASA Nathan Greiner nuclear reactor nuclear thermal propulsion space space missions SpaceNews US Space Force