Nuclear power has lost its popularity in much of the world, but in space the sky is the limit.
The US government is drawing on the expertise of Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin, General Electric Hitachi Nuclear Energy, and others to develop nuclear-powered spacecraft that can travel faster and further – to Mars and beyond.
NASA and the Department of Energy have awarded three $ 5 million contracts to develop reactor design concepts that could be used to move people and cargo to Mars or take scientific missions to the outer reaches of the solar system, the company said Space Agency in a statement on Tuesday. The companies involved include defense companies Lockheed Martin and Aerojet Rocketdyne, as well as drone manufacturers General Atomics and BWX Technologies, which manufacture nuclear components and fuel.
“These design contracts are an important step toward tangible reactor hardware that could one day fuel new missions and exciting discoveries,” said Jim Reuter, assistant administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, in the statement.
Nuclear propulsion systems are more efficient than standard chemical-based rockets, which means they can travel faster into space for more ambitious missions, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Nuclear power now generates around 10% of the world’s electricity, up from a peak of 18% in the mid-1990s.
The development of the technology for space travel could take several years, which is faced with significant hurdles. While nuclear power plants have been used in submarines and aircraft carriers for decades, placing them on top of an explosive missile carries significant risks.
The nuclear space effort is amid a resurgence in off-planetary activity, with the US government exploring Mars and planning the first manned mission to the moon in decades. Meanwhile, companies backed by prominent billionaires are scrambling to commercialize space tourism. Virgin Galactic Holdings completed a suborbital test flight with founder Richard Branson on board on Sunday. Amazon.com founder Bezos plans to launch a Blue Origin rocket next week.
General Electric manufactured many of the reactors of the 1970s and 1980s that generate power from boiling water and that remain at the heart of the US nuclear portfolio. More recently, through its joint venture with Hitachi Ltd, the company has specialized in smaller reactors that do not require the same infrastructure. Development and interest in larger nuclear power plants has slowed in recent years due to cost overruns and backlash after the Fukushima, Japan, 2011 meltdown.
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