The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has awarded Lockheed Martin $33.7 million to develop the JETSON project (Joint Emergent Technology Supplying On-Orbit Nuclear).
The project aims to develop high-power nuclear energy, propulsion technologies, and spacecraft design. In simple terms, they will attempt to launch a fission reactor that will be activated once in space. Reactor will generate heat, which will then be transferred to Stirling power converters to produce electricity. This electricity can then be used to power the payloads of spacecraft or directly for propulsion.
JETSON Project and its Partners
The reactor is based on NASA‘s previous Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY). “The development of nuclear fission for space applications is crucial. It will introduce technologies that could radically change the way we move in space” said Barry Miles, JETSON program director and lead researcher at Lockheed Martin.
“From high-power electrical subsystems to electric propulsion. From nuclear thermal propulsion to fission surface power. Lockheed Martin is focused on developing these systems with our government agencies and industrial partners” Miles added.
On JETSON, Lockheed Martin will work with Space Nuclear Power Corp (SpaceNukes) and BWX Technologies (BWXT). Both companies have experience in nuclear energy and reactor design. The project is currently in the preliminary design review phase, with the possibility of moving to the critical design review level.
“A future JETSON flight experiment will enhance maneuverability and power capabilities for future space operations” said Andy Phelps, CEO of SpaceNukes. The contract award was announced on September 29th (ref.), along with contracts for two other industrial players.
Startup Intuitive Machines also received a $9.4 million contract. They will design a spacecraft concept using a compact radioisotope power system. Additionally, Westinghouse Government Services received a contract to continue researching the use of high-power nuclear fission systems in spacecraft.
The new award to Lockheed Martin is another victory for the company in the field of space nuclear energy. In July, NASA and the US military chose the aerospace giant to develop and launch a spacecraft to test nuclear thermal propulsion in space. The project, known as DRACO, could present a propulsion system many times more efficient than traditional chemical methods.