Nuclear and fusion energy at the forefront of space exploration
A new space race is emerging with higher stakes and more ambitious goals than just returning to Earth orbit or the moon. The US has built a significant technological lead in missile and satellite technology, which in turn has increased our national and global space ambitions. Now that it is possible to go into low Earth orbit cheaply and reliably, astronauts and private corporations want to go even further – including establishing permanent colonies on the Moon and Mars, mining asteroids for their immense natural resources, and dispatching them Astronauts in search of life on the moons of the outer planets. And we are not alone in this race. China and Russia are teaming up on a lunar base, and China claims it will be the first country to colonize Mars and even mine asteroids.
Nuclear fission and fusion energy will be critical to realizing this and other ambitions. These technologies can deliver the performance – including immense performance, durability, and reliability – required to move large people and cargo over astronomical distances and meet the energy needs of long-term colonies far removed from Earth’s safety net. To that end, China is reportedly investing in the advanced propulsion sector, including nuclear fission and merger contexts that dwarf US efforts. In order for the US to remain globally competitive and win what some call the new “Deep Space Race,” we need to double investment in fission and fusion technologies.
Below, we summarize a recent proposal from the Fusion Industry Association (FIA) detailing this new space race and advocating a $ 40 million program from the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to allow the use of Fusion for space travel accelerate. We discuss this in the context of recent efforts by the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to work together to accelerate the use of nuclear and fusion energy in space.
A proposed $ 40 million fusion propulsion program to win the Deep Space Race
The FIA - an association of 24 member companies working to commercialize fusion energy – recently recommended a $ 40 million funding program for fusion engines. The proposal “Fusion Energy for Space Propulsion: Making Fusion Space Propulsion A Reality by 2030” (the “Fusion-Space Overview”) explains that a deep space race is developing because the USA and other world powers not only have their goal in their sights about returning humans to orbit and stepping onto the moon, but building outposts on the moon, mars, and beyond. There are compelling reasons to believe that there can be tremendous returns on leadership in space exploration (beyond low-earth orbit). Not only in the form of national pride and scientific progress, but also financially. Some, including Goldman Sachs, have predicted that the world’s first trillionaire will be the person to successfully mine asteroids and their vast amounts of natural resources.
As outlined in the Fusion Space overview, chemically powered missiles don’t have the fuel efficiency to support this far-reaching agenda. Fusion propulsion can be up to 100 times more fuel efficient than chemical propulsion while still maintaining great thrust – making it a prime option for moving large payloads to distant destinations or moving cargo to and from the moon. As just one example, the Direct Fusion Drive could potentially accelerate the journey to the moon and Mars by hours or months, and even get the US to Saturn in just a few minutes 2 years.
The Fusion Space Review advocates an ARPA-like, milestone-based funding program to accelerate the development of critical fusion propulsion technologies and enable the test phase of designs. ARPA programs have a proven track record in developing promising technologies for commercial use by the private sector. A number of fusion space propulsion companies spoke at the recent ASCENDx summit on June 15, 2021, discussing how they are willing to make incremental investments to further develop their prototypes with the long-term goal of conducting ground and space demonstrations.
The FIA-recommended fusion propulsion program would synthesize best practices from the DARPA and Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) programs and apply them to space. The Fusion Space Review concludes that the $ 40 million program “has the potential to change the way we view the universe and ourselves, potentially trillions of dollars in scientific and economic innovation and secure American interests for this century and the next ”.
Energy, space and defense agencies coordinate to use advanced nuclear technology
The DOE and NASA have a long history of working together on the use of nuclear power in space. For more than 50 years, the DOE enabled space exploration on over twenty NASA missions by providing safe and reliable radioisotope energy systems and radioisotope heating units. Additionally, the DOE has decades of experience managing the production of plutonium-238 radioisotope thermal power plants required for NASA’s space probes.
That relationship has now accelerated in reach, with the goal of enabling much greater use of nuclear power in space. In 2018, NASA and the DOE began development of the Kilopower reactor, with the hope of demonstrating a fission surface energy system on the moon by the end of the decade. And towards the end of the previous administration, former Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) expanding the DOE-NASA partnership on space exploration. Nuclear power and propulsion were among the main areas of interest listed in the Memorandum of Understanding. This was followed by the Space Policy Guideline 6, with which a “National Strategy for Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion” should be implemented.
NASA is currently examining the possibility of using two nuclear systems for space research. The first is a nuclear-electric propulsion system, which is highly efficient and allows a spacecraft to travel for longer periods of time, albeit with less thrust. The second type of system is a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP), a system with higher thrust but still far more efficient than a traditional missile. (Fusion systems can also be split in a similar way). Similarly, Battelle Energy Alliance, which operates the DOE Idaho National Laboratory, launched a tender earlier this year for an interim design for a nuclear thermal propulsion reactor.
NASA and DOE efforts complement a DARPA program called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) to demonstrate an in-orbit NTP system. Although the program is only just beginning, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin and General Atomic have received initial awards. As DARPA explains: “[t]The space sphere is essential to modern trade, scientific discovery, and national defense. Maintaining space awareness in cislunar space – the volume of space between the earth and the moon – requires a leap forward in propulsion technology. ”This is why all three agencies have shown interest in using fusion for similar purposes.
To successfully compete with China and Russia in the new Deep Space Race, the US must accelerate investments in these business-critical areas and enter into public-private partnerships to accelerate technology development. There are numerous private companies, including those listed in the Fusion Space overview, that are pursuing innovative and progressive concepts for nuclear space propulsion. And as recent DOE, NASA and DARPA events have shown, a number of companies are standing by to support the development of nuclear and fusion space propulsion technologies.
However, aside from the efforts of DARPA DRACO, these initiatives lack a significant and long-term dedicated funding program to support their commercialization. Continuous investment in nuclear and fusion propulsion concepts through the establishment of long-term programs with the clear ultimate goal of demonstrating several advanced propulsion technologies in space, including an ARPA-like program as recommended by the FIA, can have a huge impact on whether or not the U.S. only “win” the next space race, but even compete with countries like Russia and China, which make these programs national priorities.