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This week: The return of the nuclear rocket, the shaky finances of Virgin Orbit and the sanctions against Chinese satellite companies.
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Nuclear technology is in season: climate change and geopolitics are pushing governments to extend the life of aging nuclear power plants and build new ones. Just last week the United States approved a smaller modular nuclear reactor for power generation, only the seventh it has ever approved.
Unsurprisingly, this is also reflected in space. Nuclear weapons have always been closely tied to the space program as an incentive to seize orbital heights and a catalyst for long-range missions. Deep-space missions routinely rely on nuclear power, using the heat given off by radioactive substances to generate electricity without a chain reaction of separating atoms. NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is currently exploring the surface of Mars, is powered by one of these devices.
But the dream of space fanatics is a real nuclear rocket, a rocket using a fission reactor to drive an engine two to three times more powerful than any engine dependent on burning fossil fuels. Launched into space on a conventional rocket, it could shorten trips to Mars or give the Space Force unprecedented maneuverability. Last week, NASA and DARPA, the US Army’s advanced technology laboratory, announcement a collaborative project called DRACO to build and test exactly such a vehicle.
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“There’s a risk that DRACO will become just another announcement to make a program and then we’ll just be canceled or thrown in the trash,” says Tabitha Dodson, DARPA program manager. surveillance the project. These programs arrive approximately every 10 or fifteen years, starting with the NERVA project to develop a nuclear rocket in the 1960s, and they tend to get bogged down in complex engineering challenges. No nuclear rocket has ever been demonstrated.
Engineers today have certain advantages, says Anthony Calomino, NASA program director for DRACO and the agency’s head of nuclear research. Advances in materials science, manufacturing techniques and computer modeling will make this easier.
However, what makes things more difficult are stricter rules regarding atomic testing. The United States has only put a nuclear reactor in space once before, through an Air Force program called SNAPSHOT. Ground testing of reactor designs, including the intentional destruction of a reactor, has contributed to Rayactive contamination at the Idaho National Laboratory. With greater knowledge on the dangers of nuclear activity, there will be no full power test of the reactor before it goes into space this time.
Instead, the designers plan to rely on commercial technology. DARPA has hired General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin for the initial phase of the project and plans to announce the company that will build and test the vehicle soon. The challenge of making the reactor as light as possible is a materials science problem: fission reactors use radioactive solid fuel – in this case, high-grade low-enriched uranium– and a moderator, a substance that slows the neutrons emitted from the fuel so that they are more likely to collide with other fuel atoms and cause the desired chain reaction. To make the reactor as efficient as possible, these materials will need to withstand high temperatures. Once the reactor is running, it will heat liquid hydrogen under high pressure, which change to gas and be ejected from a nozzle to propel the vehicle.
Safety is a priority for the program, whose leaders are well aware of the public fears around radioactivity. The good news is that fission reactors are relatively inert until ignited. The bad news – “the one event that is going to determine our safety requirements”, according to Calomino – is that if the reactor is submerged in a body of water after some sort of launch failure, a fission reaction could begin. that could spread hazardous radioactive materials. The solution is to have a neutron-absorbing material, happily called neutron poison, ready to deploy during a breakdown and stop such a reaction. “We will prevent the reactor, in any scenario, from going critical,” Dodson said.
If something goes wrong while the reactor is being tested in orbit, it is far enough from Earth – at least 1000 kilometers but probably more – that there are few immediate consequences. The ultimate plan is for the vehicle to remain in orbit for a few hundred years once testedis finished. (The other American space reactor, SNAP-10A, is still in orbit, although it is apparently breaking up.)
For now, the project is still on the drawing board, with the hope of finalizing its design by 2025. The goal is to fly the vehicle in 2027, but, like most space technology forecaststhis is an optimistic projection. Dodson notes, however, that “once we demonstrate that we can move a platform through space while using a nuclear reactor, someone will come along and optimize it.”
In addition to deep space exploration and a chance for the Space Force to overcome the “tyranny of volume”—the amount of space between Earth and the Moon where human activity is increasingly directed—this project could have other benefits. This could offer new perspectives for the construction of small, efficient power-generating reactors on Earth or the Moon: NASA already has a pilot program develop nuclear for future lunar settlements.
In 1961, an unidentified NASA researcher posed, slide rule in hand, for a photo with a scale model of a nuclear-powered spacecraft – the nuclear reactor and engine are on the right side of the model, while the crew would be on the left side at a safe distance.
Think of this as another entry in my efforts urging today’s NASA photographers to reproduce the incredible portraits of 20th century astronauts and scientists.
Honorable mention. Old astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley received the rare Space Medal of Honor for their work as test pilots on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraftwhich returned human spaceflight to the United States after a nine-year hiatus and pioneered new methods of collaboration between the space agency and private companies.
Virgin Orbit’s capital enigma. Founder Richard Branson invested another 10 million dollars in the satellite launch company (NASDAQ:VORB) he founded, but its cash burn rate, a failed launch and increasingly stringent terms suggest the company could face bankruptcy or a takeover in the coming months.
US sanctions Chinese SAR company. Spacety, a Chinese satellite company, was sanctioned by the US government, which said it provided space radar imagery of Ukraine to the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization designated by the US as a criminal band. Spacety has since claimed he provided no data to Wagner.
Axiom is building a business around government astronauts. Axiom, a space company that flies passengers to the International Space Station and is developing its own space station, said this week that most of the demand for passenger services is from governments without their own space programs, not tourists with deep pockets. The company’s second mission to the ISS is scheduled for later this year and it is believed to include two astronauts from Saudi Arabia.
SpaceX wins freight contract. The US Air Force has signed a $102 million contract with Elon Musk’s space company to develop point-to-point cargo delivery systems on Earth. It is the early days of the idea, which faced considerable logistical and operational challenges.
It was number 167 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your predictions on the financial fate of Virgin Orbit, forgotten stories of nuclear space technology, advice and informed opinions to [email protected].