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Nuclear propulsion technology drives submarines beneath the ocean and aircraft carriers across the sea, and now NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing a new Nuclear Thermal Propulsion system (NTP).
Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations
The new NTP system, being developed through a deal with DARPA and General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS), is a technology intended to allow a rocket to operate in cislunar space, the area just outside of the Earth’s atmosphere just past the moon’s orbit.
“Nuclear propulsion provides greater propellant efficiency as compared with chemical rockets. It’s a potential technology for crew and cargo missions to Mars and science missions to the outer solar system, enabling faster and more robust missions in many cases,” a NASA statement from an earlier phase of the technologies’ development says.
Certainly this kind of propulsion breakthrough could introduce substantial tactical advantages from a military standpoint, to include an ability to perhaps more efficiently and successfully send and operate manned or unmanned vehicles beyond the earth’s atmosphere to conduct surveillance missions, missile defense, and connectivity with satellite systems.
The DARPA program is called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, and it is intended to engineer a rocket that operates effectively in cislunar space beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and even beyond, according to General Atomics senior officials.
“GA-EMS’ expertise in state-of-the-art nuclear fuels and advanced materials are key components to the NTP design to create a highly efficient and exceptionally safe propulsion system. Combined with our in-house capabilities to fabricate these components and others, we can ensure delivery of a superior NTP reactor on orbit and on time,” Dr. Christina Back, vice president of Nuclear Technologies and Materials at GA-EMS.
How much would a reliable, next-generation propulsion system impact operations?
Destroy ICBMs or Hypersonic Weapons
There appear to be a variety of interesting possibilities with this, to include potentially sending interceptors into space to knock out or destroy enemy ICBMs or hypersonic weapons.
Perhaps using an enhanced propulsion system will better align flight trajectory for an interceptor weapon and enable more precise navigation and ICBM targeting? The prospect potentially introduces new possibilities such as improving surveillance and discernment of kill vehicle sensors by virtue of enabling longer flights, establishing a “track” on an approaching enemy weapon traveling through space or even enabling more “dwell time” in space while searching to intercept a threat.
Space Drones and Manned Spaceflight
Then there is the prospect of space drones and manned spaceflight. Could stronger, more resilient and effective propulsion enable a new generation of space vehicles? The idea must certainly be presenting itself.
It goes without saying that this could open up a new, paradigm-changing aspect of space warfare to include targeting, threat tracking or even weapons employment beyond the earth's atmosphere. How much could it help missile defense, or even offensive operations to introduce an ability to fly surveillance and attack drones into space for military operations.
Past to Present
Interestingly, a 2005 essay by the International Atomic Energy Agency seems to predict and anticipate this kind of technological application, something which is now coming to fruition with GA-EMS’ work. Titled “The Role of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Propulsion in the Peaceful Exploration of Space,” the essay not only explains that nuclear propulsion into space would vastly increase range, endurance and power capacity, but specifically cites its potential value to “unmanned spacecraft.”
“Better mass and size parameters when used on unmanned spacecraft, beginning with a power level of several tens of kilowatts,” the essay states. NPS, or Nuclear Propulsion Systems, the essay explains, can provide a power level two to three times greater.
Further, the essay predicts nuclear propulsion advantages which clearly have military value, saying …”In the future, space NPSs and combined nuclear power/propulsion systems (NPPSs) with an electrical power level of several hundred kilowatts will enable such long term space missions as global environmental monitoring, production at facilities in space, supply of power for lunar and Martian missions, and others.”
Clearly, as mentioned in the essay, long-dwell or greatly extended space missions with manned or unmanned spacecraft could be enabled to a massive degree beyond what might be conceivable today, with the advent of space-traveling nuclear propulsion.
DARPA and GA-EMS plan to have this kind of paradigm-changing technology operational as soon as 2025.
To date, the SNAP-10A reactor has been the only U.S. nuclear power reactor launched into space, for which General Atomics was directly involved in nuclear fuel testing and characterization.
In the next year and half, GA-EMS plans to complete a preliminary design of the NTP system, which can then be built and validated in low-earth orbit.
Kris Osborn is the President and Editor-in-Chief of Warrior Maven and the Defense Editor of the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.