Department of Defense interested in nuclear propulsion system for small spacecraft

Shawn Knight

Posts: 13,514   +132
Staff member
What just happened? The Department of Defense’s (DoD) Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) is asking private-sector companies to submit proposals for advanced nuclear propulsion technologies that could be used to power future DoD missions in space.

The DoD in its request said existing electrical and solar-based propulsion systems are neither suitable for missions that will go beyond Earth orbit, nor are they compatible with the increasingly shrinking size of next-gen spacecraft. As such, an advanced propulsion system that enables high changes in velocity and electrical power to payloads, while also being fuel efficient, is a must.

It should come as little surprise that the US government and agencies like NASA are already working to develop fission-based propulsion and power systems. The DIU’s DoD partners, however, would prefer to adopt mature commercial tech that can be used in the near term.

In addition to the propulsion requirements, the DoD would also like for submitted systems to be able to provide heat to spacecraft systems (space can be a chilly place) and be scalable down to under 4,409 pounds (dry mass), all while minimizing the amount of radiation given off.

The DIU said submitted proposals must show credible manufacturing, regulatory and licensing paths that could result in the development of a prototype within three to five years.

Interested parties are encouraged to fill out the submission form on the DIU’s website to get the ball rolling. From there, they’ll need to submit a solution brief that is five or fewer pages and slide decks consisting of 15 or fewer slides. Responses are due by September 23, 2021.

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Uncle Al

Posts: 8,242   +7,014
Must be looking for an upgrade, they had an existing system over 20 years ago that was actually used after being tested at WPAFB .....
 

mbrowne5061

Posts: 1,916   +1,116
Why does the DoD need a nuclear propulsion solution in the next 3-5 years? What do they need to go beyond earth orbit for, anyway?
 

wiyosaya

Posts: 6,537   +4,930
Asteroid mining is a viable reason. Some rare minerals, on earth, are readily available in the belt.
IMO, this is a good example. Nuclear has the potential to reduce spacecraft weight due to not needing chemical fuel. But, who knows what the actual reason is that DoD wants this.

Mineral wealth in asteroids is estimated to be exceptionally high https://nypost.com/2020/10/28/nasa-finds-rare-metal-asteroid-worth-10000-quadrillion/ Not to mention, there are minerals available that are not easily found on Earth. For instance Iridium - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iridium
 

wiyosaya

Posts: 6,537   +4,930
Must be looking for an upgrade, they had an existing system over 20 years ago that was actually used after being tested at WPAFB .....
I am not sure they are looking for a system exactly like that one. IIRC, that system produced a substantial amount of radioactive discharge. It sounds like they want this for heating, and perhaps they want to power an advanced ion drive with it.
 

Theinsanegamer

Posts: 2,724   +4,258
The irony of the government looking for nuke powered spaceships while refusing to build out new nuke infastructure to power their EV dreams is not lost on me.
 

wiyosaya

Posts: 6,537   +4,930
The irony of the government looking for nuke powered spaceships while refusing to build out new nuke infastructure to power their EV dreams is not lost on me.
:rolleyes: Maybe more electric plants are needed for EVs only in an alternate reality. Charging infrastructure is needed more for EVs than additional power plants. Don't take my word for it. Do a search and inform yourself.

In space, however, carrying tons of fuel means you have to have the means to move all that fuel around - which means that less on-board fuel means you can go farther in space. It makes perfect sense to use this type of propulsion on a spacecraft.
 

mbrowne5061

Posts: 1,916   +1,116
10 days? Methinks they already have someone in mind, and just going through the motions.
That is a typical amount of time for these things. Government wants companies to submit what they already have that could address the problem being solved; not submit what they would like (hope) to one day make. The government is constantly funding research grants, and reading the resulting papers (both university and corporate), so they already have a pretty good idea of who knows how to do what (and they aren't afraid to play match maker if they feel two different groups each have half of the puzzle).

They may not have someone in mind, but they probably already have a good idea of who is going to propose what. Its just an open proposal just in case there is a 'surprise' submission from a smaller/less known company/university that could also fit the bill.