Powering the Future of Space Exploration: DIU Launching Next-Generation Nuclear Propulsion and Power

Nuclear thermal propulsion system. (Credit; USNC-Tech)

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif., May 17, 2022 (DIU) — The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) is advancing two different approaches to accelerate ground and flight testing for nuclear-powered prototypes: compact fusion and next-gen radioisotope concepts.  The ultimate objective is to launch a successful orbital prototype demonstration in 2027 of each approach.


Dark Fission Launches to Bring Nuclear Thermal Rockets to Market

Promises revolutionary gains in performance, leveraging sixty years of evolving technologies

BERKELEY, Calif., March 22, 2022 — Dark Fission Space Systems, an early-stage space start-up, aims to accelerate the expansion of the space economy beyond Low Earth Orbit through the development and deployment of the first commercially available nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) engine. Led by Dr. Fred Kennedy, the Dark Fission team will combine years of NTR design evolution with modern advances in computing, manufacturing, and materials to produce a safe and reliable in-space propulsion capability with performance characteristics exceeding anything available today.


USNC-Tech Team Wins Contract to Develop Nuclear Thermal Propulsion System For NASA

Nuclear thermal propulsion system. (Credit; USNC-Tech)

NTP Technology Can Enable Human Missions to Mars

SEATTLE (USNC-Tech PR) — Idaho National Laboratory has selected USNC-Tech and its partners to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) reactor concept design for space exploration: the Power-Adjusted Demonstration Mars Engine (PADME) NTP engine.

This effort, one of three selected by the government team, is a step toward the manufacture and demonstration of safe, affordable, reliable, high-performance NTP engines for crewed deep space travel. In the future, the designs could inform a full-scale NTP engine prototype. The funding for this procurement was provided by NASA. INL is operated by Battelle Energy Alliance for the Department of Energy.


NASA Announces Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Reactor Concept Awards

Illustration of a conceptual spacecraft enabled by nuclear thermal propulsion. (Credits: NASA)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA is leading an effort, working with the Department of Energy (DOE), to advance space nuclear technologies. The government team has selected three reactor design concept proposals for a nuclear thermal propulsion system. The reactor is a critical component of a nuclear thermal engine, which would utilize high-assay low-enriched uranium fuel.


Sierra Space Provides Integration Services for New Nuclear Propulsion System as Part of DARPA’s DRACO Program

DRACO in orbit (Credit: Sierra Space)

LOUISVILLE, Colo., June 24, 2021 (Sierra Space PR) – Sierra Space, the new commercial space subsidiary of global aerospace and national security leader Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), will supply the propulsion components and integration services for a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) system under a recent contract with General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS). GA-EMS and Sierra Space will develop and demonstrate an on-orbit NTP system for a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO).


DARPA Selects Performers for Phase 1 of Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) Program

Credit: DARPA

Industry teams to develop propulsion design, spacecraft concepts for demonstrating on-orbit Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) system

ARLINGTON, Va. (DARPA PR) — DARPA has awarded contracts for the first phase of the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program. The goal of the DRACO program is to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system above low Earth orbit in 2025. The three prime contractors are General Atomics, Blue Origin, and Lockheed Martin.


BWXT Awarded Additional Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Work for NASA

Nuclear thermal propulsion system. (Credit: BWX Technologies)

LYNCHBURG, Va., April 1, 2021 (BWX Technologies PR) – BWX Technologies, Inc. (NYSE: BWXT) announced today that it is continuing its groundbreaking Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) design, manufacturing development, and test support work for NASA. NTP is one of the technologies that is capable of propelling a spacecraft to Mars, and this contract continues BWXT’s work that began in 2017.


NASA Funds Research on Nuclear-powered Solar Sails to Quickly Explore Outer Planets

A nominal layout of a solar sail vehicle with a central payload and avionics unit, supported by a distributed APPLE power system with the number and area of units scaled to mission power need (not to scale). (Credits: E. Joseph Nemanick)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase I Award
Funding: up to $125,000
Study Period: 9 months

Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration (APPLE)
E. Joseph Nemanick
The Aerospace Corporation
Santa Monica, Calif.

The Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration (APPLE) is an enabling architecture for deep solar system missions on low mass, fast transit space platforms. We explore an alternative vehicle architecture that integrates a long-lived, peak power capable, rechargeable, and modular power system with solar sail propulsion, and examine the new missions this architecture enables.


Executive Summary, Findings & Recommendations from National Academies Report on Space Nuclear Propulsion

FIGURE 2.1 Photo of a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system from the Rover/NERVA programs (left) and a cutaway schematic with labels (right). SOURCE: M. Houts et. al., NASA’s Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Project, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, August 2018, ntrs.nasa.gov/citations/20180006514.

Space Nuclear Propulsion for Human Mars Exploration
National Academics of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
National Academies Press


NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate requested the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to convene an ad hoc committee to identify primary technical and programmatic challenges, merits, and risks for developing and demonstrating space nuclear propulsion technologies of interest to future exploration missions. The particular systems of interest were specified as nuclear thermal propulsion and nuclear electric propulsion systems. The committee was also tasked with determining the key milestones, a top-level development and demonstration roadmap, and other missions that could be enabled by successful development of these systems.


For Humans to Reach Mars, Advances Are Needed in Space Nuclear Propulsion Technologies

Illustration of a Mars transit habitat and nuclear propulsion system that could one day take astronauts to Mars. (Credits: NASA)

WASHINGTON (National Academies PR) — Using nuclear propulsion technologies to support a human mission to Mars in 2039 will require NASA to pursue an aggressive and urgent technology development program, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.