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.”

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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.

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