Startup plan to launch a nuclear reactor into space for the first time in decades

According to Atomos Space, there has never been a better time to bring nuclear power into space.  AtomosSpace believes that regulatory hurdles are a major obstacle, not technology.

Concept art for the neutrino space nuclear pathfinder.Image: Atmos Space


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Humans can greatly expand our existence from Earth by powering spacecraft in nuclear reactors, but there are also regulations that regulate the use of nuclear power in space, and this dream is dozens of. I’ve been stuck for years. Many orbiters, deep space probes, and Mars probes are powered by plutonium-fueled radioisotope batteries, but the United States only launched a fission reactor called SNAP-10 into space in 1965. is.

A startup called Atomos Space is currently planning to conduct a basic criticality test of a low-power (100 watt heat) fission reactor in orbit, working to change the delay over the last few decades. A planned spacecraft called the Neutrino Space Nuclear Pathfinder navigates the new US government framework that clarifies many ambiguous regulations surrounding space nuclear.

Founded in 2017 and based in Denver, Colorado, Atomos Space is currently investing in nuclear reactors as part of the company’s larger vision of developing a “space tag” service that guides satellites into target orbits after launch. I am. Not only that, but also companies such as Space Nukes and X-energy, and government agencies such as NASA and DARPA, according to Atmos. Space CEO Vanessa Clark.

“We’re definitely the first company to get out there and say that the biggest step isn’t technology. It’s demonstrating that it’s possible from a regulatory standpoint,” Clark said of Atmos Space’s Advanced Nuclear. He said in a party line with engineer Lucas Bevelridge. “From that point of view, we are definitely pioneers.”

“If we overcome that psychological barrier, there are all sorts of uses for space nuclear,” Beverridge added. “A lot of people have been working on this kind of thing since the 1950s. There are many great concepts that could work, but I never have the chance to try them out.”

Nuclear power does not require strong direct sunlight to function, so it has many advantages over solar energy, the most abundant fuel in the universe. As a result, nuclear spacecraft can power the planets uninterruptedly at night and allow exploration of the darkest areas of the solar system and beyond. In addition, nuclear power systems are more compact than solar arrays, a factor that frees up more space for scientific missions and more advanced propulsion technologies.

“It’s a technology that moves far or fast in space,” Clark said, referring to nuclear power. “It’s a way we will eventually move away from Earth and have a lasting presence.”

Nuclear power, on the other hand, is another fuel, including the spread of radioactive contamination that can damage spacecraft, pollute the atmosphere, and pose a health threat to people and ecosystems on Earth. It poses a unique risk compared to the source. For example, the Soviet Union, which sent nuclear reactors into space until the 1980s, scattered radioactive debris in northern Canada when the satellite Kosmos 954 went out of orbit in 1978.

That’s why Beveridge is working on a reactor design that separates the two fuel loads needed to power the system, with the goal of assembling them in space. Fuel components containing low-enriched uranium can be launched in the space opposite the rocket fairing, on a nose cap that protects the spacecraft at launch, or with two separate rockets. With this approach, even if the rocket explodes or other types of malfunctions occur, the fuel load does not interact until it is deployed in space.

“It will eliminate possible risks,” Beveridge said. “Basically, it’s physically impossible to accidentally become critical. This is very easy for regulators and launch approvers.”

“Safety is important, but it’s also about streamlining regulatory approvals,” he said. “If all the reactor fuels are in one place, it’s essentially a reactor without turning on the power.” There is none.”

Atomos Space plans to roadtest the nuances of these types of regulations presented at the end of the Trump administration in Presidential Policy Directive 6, entitled “National Strategy for Space Nuclear and Promotion.” .. The directive clarifies some previously ambiguous points about space nuclear, such as specific standards for dealing with public security and clearer rules for private companies wishing to launch a nuclear system.

The company believes that the new board has opened the door to low-cost nuclear reactors in space and is now hoping to launch a neutrino mission within four to five years. This first reactor will be a demonstration, but Clark believes it can pave the way for some of the most ambitious goals of space exploration.

“Apart from moving, if you look at what SpaceX wants to do and go to Mars, the only way to make propellant on the surface of Mars is to use a nuclear reactor,” she said. “Looking at much of what NASA wants to do on the surface of the moon, the duration of the moon’s night is 14 days on Earth. Solar panels and batteries don’t really cut it. They are permanent on the moon. We are really looking for nuclear technology to power our equipment. ”

“Besides transportation, there are two examples we think will change the game, and we want to make that possible,” Clark concludes.

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