Research & Development

US / General Atomics Submits Nuclear Reactor Concept For Missions To Mars

By David Dalton
15 September 2020

The design was produced as part of a NASA-funded study
General Atomics Submits Nuclear Reactor Concept For Missions To Mars
Image courtesy General Atomics
US-based General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) has delivered a design concept for a nuclear thermal propulsion reactor to power future astronaut missions to Mars.

The design was produced as part of a NASA-funded study. GA-EMS said its design exceeded the key performance parameters requested by NASA.

The reactor concept incorporates advancements in modern nuclear materials and manufacturing methods with experience from GA-EMS’s involvement on NASA Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Project Rover in the 1960s. Project Rover was one of the first programmes to demonstrate the feasibility of space-based nuclear thermal propulsion.

GA fabricated approximately six tonnes of the nuclear fuel kernels for the project. In 1965, the company was also directly involved in nuclear fuel testing and characterisation for the SNAP-10A reactor, the only US nuclear power reactor launched into space, which powered the satellite for 43 days. The fuel used for that reactor is the same fuel that has been used since the 1950s in General Atomics Triga reactors.

The GA-EMS design proposes new features that address issues observed in historical designs, such as fuel element corrosion, and achieves a compact core using high-assay low-enriched uranium (Haleu) instead of high-enriched uranium (HEU).

In a related development, NASA and the US Department of Energy said recently they expect to issue a formal request for proposals by early October for the development of a compact nuclear power system to be used for long-term lunar and Martian exploration.

Space News reported that DOE officials said they expected to release a request for proposals in late September or early October for the first phase of the Fission Surface Power project.

That project seeks to develop a 10-kilowatt fission power system that could be placed on the moon as soon as 2027, providing power to enable long-term lunar surface activities, especially during the two-week night when solar power is not an option.

The DOE said 10 kW would be enough to power one-hundred 100-watt light bulbs or roughly 1/100,000 of the power produced by a typical 1,000-MW commercial reactor.

“That may not seem like a lot of juice, but it will be enough to power a portion of the infrastructure and equipment needed by astronauts on the lunar surface,” the DOE said.

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