Pentagon boosts two Seattle ventures working on nuclear-powered prototypes for space applications

An artist’s conception shows a spacecraft powered by Ultra Safe Nuclear systems. (USNC-Tech Illustration)

Two Seattle companies have won Pentagon contracts to develop nuclear-powered prototypes for space applications, with orbital demonstrations set for 2027.

The Defense Innovation Unit says Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies has been tasked with demonstrating a chargeable, encapsulated nuclear radioisotope battery called EmberCore for propulsion and power applications in space.

Plutonium-powered radioisotope batteries have been in use for decades, going back to the Apollo era. For example, NASA’s Perseverance and Curiosity rovers are relying on such batteries to provide the heat and electricity for their operations on Mars.

EmberCore is a next-generation radioisotope power source. (Ultra Safe Nuclear Illustration)

EmberCore would provide 10 times as much power as those batteries, producing more than 1 million kilowatt-hours of energy using just a few pounds of fuel.

Another Seattle-based venture, Avalanche Energy, will receive backing from the Defense Innovation Unit to continue development of a compact fusion device known as Orbitron. The device, which is about the size of a lunchbox, would use electrostatic fields to trap ions in conjunction with a magnetron electron confinement system.

The resulting fusion reaction would produce energetic particles for generating either heat or electricity, which can power a high-efficiency propulsion system.

Financial details of the contracts were not released.

DIU’s initiative — known as Nuclear Advanced Propulsion and Power, or NAPP — is targeted at developing power and propulsion systems for highly maneuverable, small spacecraft using fusion and radioisotopes.

The Avalanche Energy team is aiming to develop a small-scale fusion device. This is an artist’s illustration of the potential relative size of their technology. (Avalanche Energy Image)

“Advanced nuclear technologies will provide the speed, power and responsiveness to maintain an operational advantage in space,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Ryan Weed, NAPP’s program manager, said today in a news release. “Nuclear tech has traditionally been government-developed and operated, but we have discovered a thriving ecosystem of commercial companies, including startups, innovating in space nuclear.”

See also  Xplore acquires assets of Kubos flight software company as it ramps up for first space mission

Weed said future space missions planned by the Department of Defense will require nuclear power. “Bottom line, chemical and solar-based systems won’t provide the power needed,” he said.

Both Avalanche Energy and Ultra Safe Nuclear have connections to Blue Origin, a better-known space venture created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Avalanche Energy’s founders are Blue Origin veterans who worked on rocket propulsion systems for the Kent, Wash.-based company. Avalanche recently announced receiving $5 million in seed funding, with Prime Impact Fund (now Azolla Ventures) leading the investment round.

Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies is partnering with Blue Origin on a $5 million contract from NASA and the Department of Energy to develop a reactor design for space-based nuclear thermal propulsion systems.

The company also says it’s helping out Blue Origin and General Atomics on a project to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion system for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, or DARPA, with an orbital demonstration set for 2025.

Related Posts

Tech founder who took space trip with William Shatner dies in N.J. plane crash

Glen de Vries peers out from Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital space capsule after touchdown in October. (Blue Origin Photo) A month after taking a suborbital space…

BlackSky makes a deal to sell satellite imagery to NASA — and makes its first quarterly report

One of BlackSky’s Earth observation satellites is readied for launch. (Rocket Lab Photo) BlackSky Technology says it has secured a five-year, sole-source blanket purchase agreement with NASA…

Jeff Bezos says he’s spending more on his Earth Fund than on Blue Origin space shots

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, talks about the link between space and Earth’s welfare with moderator Adi Ignatius at a forum at Washington…

Orbite’s plans for space training complex get a boost from famed French designer Philippe Starck

Orbite customers and instructors take a zero-G airplane flight during spaceflight training. (Orbite Photo) The French designer who created the look for Virgin Galactic, Spaceport America and…

Rocket Lab launches two more Earth observation satellites for BlackSky — and tracks a falling rocket

Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle rises from its New Zealand launch pad. (Rocket Lab via YouTube) BlackSky’s Earth-watching constellation has grown by two satellites, thanks to Rocket…

NASA begins DART mission to practice pushing away an asteroid, with an extra push from Aerojet

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launches NASA’s DART asteroid probe from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. (NASA via YouTube) A space probe the size of a school…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *