Deep space exploration

Nuclear and fusion power at the forefront of deep space exploration | Hogan Lovells

[co-authors: Sachin Desai, Stephanie Fishman]

A new space race is developing, with higher stakes and more ambitious goals than simply returning to Earth orbit or to the Moon. The United States has developed a considerable technological lead in rocketry and satellite technology, which in turn has increased our domestic and global space ambitions. Now that it’s possible to get to low Earth orbit affordably and reliably, astronauts and private companies are now looking to go further, including establishing permanent colonies on the Moon and Mars, mining asteroids for their huge natural resources, and sending astronauts to search for life on the moons of the outer planets. And we are not alone in this race. China and Russia are team up on a lunar base, and China claims it will be the first to colonize Mars and even mine asteroids.

Nuclear fission and fusion energy will be essential to achieving these and other ambitions. These technologies can provide the performance – including immense power levels, longevity and reliability – needed to transport large people and cargo over astronomical distances, and meet the energy needs of long-term colonies far away from the net. Earth security. To this end, China would make investments in the advanced propulsion sector, including in the contexts of fission and fusion, which eclipse American efforts. For the United States to remain globally competitive and win what some call the new “deep space race,” we must double our investment in nuclear fission and fusion technologies.

We review below a recent proposal from the Smelting Industry Association (FIA) which details this new space race and argues for a $40 million ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) type program to accelerate the use of fusion for space travel. We discuss this in the context of recent efforts by the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to work together to accelerate the use of nuclear energy and fusion in space.

A proposed $40 million fusion propulsion program to win the Deep Space Race

The FIA, an association of 24 member companies working to commercialize fusion energy, recently advised a $40 million fusion propulsion financing program. Proposal, “Fusion Energy for Space Propulsion: Making Fusion Space Propulsion a Reality by 2030(the “Fusion-Space Overview”) explains that there is a Deep Space Race developing as the United States and other world powers aim to not only return humans to orbit and walk on the Moon, but to build outposts on the Moon, Mars, and go much further. There are compelling reasons to believe that taking the lead in deep space exploration (beyond the near-Earth orbit) can bring enormous benefits. This is not only in the form of national pride and scientific progress, but also financial. Some, including Goldman Sachs, predicted that the world’s first billionaire will be the person who successfully mines asteroids and their enormous mineral wealth.

As noted in Fusion-Space Overview, chemical-powered rockets lack the fuel efficiency to support this massive program. Fusion propulsion can be up to 100 times more fuel efficient than chemical propulsion, while maintaining large thrusts, making it a prime option for transporting large payloads to distant destinations or transporting cargo to and from the Moon. Many designs could potentially speed up travel to the Moon and Mars in hours and months respectively, and even get the United States to Saturn in as little as two years.

The Fusion-Space preview calls for an ARPA-style milestone-based funding program to accelerate the development of critical fusion propulsion technologies and allow designs to begin testing. ARPA programs have a proven track record of moving promising technologies to commercial deployment by the private sector. A number of fusion space propulsion companies spoke at the recent ASCENDx Summit held on June 15, 2021, discussing how they are prepared to invest more to further develop their prototypes, with the long-term goal of conducting demonstrations on the ground and in space.

FIA-recommended fusion propulsion program would synthesize best practices from DARPA and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) programs and apply it to deep space. The Fusion-Space Overview concludes that the $40 million program “has the potential to transform how we view the universe and ourselves, potentially unlock trillions of dollars in scientific and economic innovation, and secure U.S. interests for this century and the next.

Energy, space and defense agencies align on advanced nuclear use

The DOE and NASA have a long history of working together on the use of nuclear energy in space. For more than 50 years, DOE activated space exploration on over twenty NASA missions by providing safe and reliable radioisotope power systems and radioisotope heater units. Additionally, the DOE has decades of experience in managing the production of plutonium-238 radioisotope thermal power generators required for NASA’s deep space probes.

This relationship has now grown, with the aim of enabling much greater uses of nuclear energy in space. In 2018, NASA and the DOE launched an effort to develop the Kilopower Reactor, hoping to demonstrate a fission surface power system on the moon by the end of the decade. And near the end of the previous administration, former Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine signed a protocol of agreement (MOU) to expand the DOE-NASA partnership on space exploration. Nuclear energy and propulsion were among the main areas of interest listed in the memorandum of understanding. And this was followed by Space Policy Directive 6, which sought to implement a “National Strategy for Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion”.

Currently, NASA is examining the possibility to use two nuclear systems in space exploration. The first is a nuclear electric propulsion system, which is very efficient and allows a spacecraft to travel for longer periods of time although at lower thrust. The second type of system is a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system, which is a higher thrust system but still much more efficient than a traditional rocket. (Fusion systems can also be divided along similar lines). Along the same lines, Battelle Energy Alliance, which operates the DOE Idaho National Laboratory, earlier this year published a tender for an interim design of a thermal-powered nuclear reactor.

The NASA and DOE efforts complement a DARPA program, called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRAGON), to demonstrate an in-orbit NTP system. Although the program is just beginning, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin and General Atomic have has received initial rewards. As DARPA explains, “[t]he space domain is essential to modern commerce, scientific discovery and national defense. Maintaining spatial domain awareness in cislunar space — the volume of space between Earth and the Moon — will require a leap forward in propulsion technology. And for the same purpose, the three agencies became interested in using the merger for similar purposes.

Next steps

To successfully compete with China and Russia in the new Deep Space Race, the United States must accelerate investment in these critical areas and form public-private partnerships to accelerate technology development. There are many private companies, including companies listed in Fusion-Space Overview, pursuing innovative and advanced space nuclear propulsion concepts. And, as evidenced by recent events hosted by the DOE, NASA, and DARPA, a number of companies are poised to support the development of nuclear propulsion and space fusion technologies.

However, beyond perhaps the DARPA DRACO effort, these initiatives lack a significant, long-term dedicated funding program to support their commercialization. Continued investment in nuclear and fusion propulsion concepts, through the establishment of long-term programs with the clear end goal of demonstrating several advanced propulsion technologies in space, including an ARPA-like program such as the one recommended by the FIA, can have a huge impact on whether the United States will not only “win” the next space race, but will even be able to compete with countries like Russia and China that are making these programs national priorities.

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