Nuclear and Fusion Power at the Forefront of Deep Space Exploration

There is a new space race developing, with higher stakes and more ambitious goals than just going back to Earth orbit or the Moon.  The U.S. has developed a sizable technological lead in rockets and satellite technology, which has in turn grown our national and global space ambitions.  Now that it is feasible 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 immense natural resources, and sending astronauts to search for life on the moons of the outer planets.  And we’re not alone in this race.  China and Russia are teaming together on a lunar base, and China claims it will be the first to colonize Mars and even mine asteroids.

Nuclear fission and fusion power will be essential to accomplishing these and other ambitions.  These technologies can deliver the performance—including immense power levels, longevity and reliability—required to take large people and cargo astronomically long distances, and support the power requirements for long-term colonies far removed from the safety net of Earth.  To this end, China is reportedly making investments in the advanced propulsion sector, including in fission and fusion contexts, that dwarf U.S. efforts.  For the U.S. to remain competitive on the world scale and win what some are calling the new “Deep Space Race,” we must double down on investment in nuclear fission and fusion technologies.

We overview below a recent proposal by the Fusion Industry Association (FIA) that further details this new space race and advocates for a $40 million Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA)-style program to accelerate the use of fusion for space travel.  We discuss that in the context of recent efforts by the Department of Energy (DOE), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to work together to accelerate the use of nuclear and fusion power 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 power—recently recommended a $40 million fusion propulsion funding program. The 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 U.S. and other world powers have set their sights not just on returning humans to orbit and stepping foot on the Moon, but building outposts on the Moon, Mars, and going much farther out.  There are compelling reasons to believe that taking the lead in exploration of deep space (beyond the near-Earth orbit) can bring tremendous returns.  This is not just in the form of national pride and scientific progress, but also financial.  Some, including Goldman Sachs, have predicted that the world’s first trillionaire will be the person that successfully mines asteroids and their tremendous amounts of mineral wealth.

As outlined in the Fusion-Space Overview, chemical-propelled rockets do not have the fuel efficiency to support this far-reaching agenda.  Fusion propulsion can be up to 100 times more fuel-efficient than chemical propulsion, while still maintaining large thrusts—making it a prime option for transporting large payloads to distant destinations or ferrying cargo to and from the Moon.  Many designs could potentially expedite travel to the Moon and Mars to hours and months respectively, and even get the U.S. to Saturn in as little as two years.

The Fusion-Space Overview advocates for an ARPA-style, milestone-based funding program to accelerate the development of critical fusion propulsion technologies and enable designs to start getting tested.  ARPA programs have a demonstrated track record of moving promising technologies on a track towards commercial deployment by the private sector.  A number of fusion space propulsion ventures spoke at the recent ASCENDx Summit held June 15, 2021, discussing how they are ready for incremental investment to further develop their prototypes, with the long-term goal of performing ground and space demonstrations.

The FIA’s recommended fusion propulsion program would synthesize best practices from the DARPA and 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 the way we look at the universe and ourselves, unlock potentially trillions of dollars in scientific and economic innovation, and secure American interests for this century and the next.”

Energy, Space, and Defense Agencies Aligning on Use of Advanced Nuclear

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

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

Currently NASA is examining the possibility of utilizing two nuclear systems in space exploration. The first is a nuclear electric propulsion system, which is highly efficient and allows a spacecraft to travel for longer periods although at lower thrust. The second type of system is a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system, which is a higher thrust system but still far more efficient than a traditional rocket.  (Fusion systems can also be split along similar lines).  In the same vein, Battelle Energy Alliance, which operates DOE  Idaho National Laboratory, earlier this year published a solicitation for a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Reactor Interim Design.

The efforts by NASA and DOE complements a program by DARPA, called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO), to demonstrate a NTP system in orbit.  Although the program is just getting started, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and General Atomics have received initial awards.  As DARPA explains, “[t]he space domain is essential to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national defense. Maintaining space domain awareness in cislunar space – the volume of space between the Earth and the Moon – will require a leap-ahead in propulsion technology.”  And to the same end, all three agencies have taken interest in the use of fusion for similar ends.

Next Steps

To successfully compete with China and Russia in the new Deep Space Race, the U.S. needs to accelerate investment in these mission-critical areas and form public-private partnerships to accelerate technology development. There are numerous private companies, including the ventures listed in the Fusion-Space Overview, pursuing innovative and advanced nuclear space propulsion concepts.  And, as evidenced in recent events held by DOE, NASA, and DARPA, a number of companies stand ready to support the development of nuclear and fusion space propulsion technologies.

However, beyond possibly the DARPA DRACO effort, these initiatives lack a significant and 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 multiple advanced propulsion technologies in space, including an ARPA-like program like the one recommended by FIA, can have a tremendous impact on whether the U.S. will not only “win” the next space race, but even be able to compete with countries like Russia and China who are making these programs national priorities.

For more information, please contact authors.


Authored by Sachin Desai, Amy Roma, and Stephanie Fishman.


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