Business in Space: Atoms for Space

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Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter about the economic possibilities of extraterrestrial planets. Please retweet widely, let me know what do you think.

this week: The return of nuclear rockets, Virgin Orbit’s shaky finances, and sanctions on Chinese satellite companies.

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Nuclear technology in season: Climate change and geopolitics are prompting governments to extend the life of aging nuclear plants and build new ones. Just last week, the U.S. approved a smaller modular nuclear reactor for generating electricity, its seventh approval.

Not surprisingly, this is reflected in space as well. Nuclear weapons have always been intertwined with the space program, both as a drive to gain orbital heights and as an enabler of long-duration missions. Deep space missions typically rely on nuclear power, using the heat released by radioactive materials to generate electricity without the atom-splitting chain reaction. NASA’s Perseverance rover, currently exploring the surface of Mars, is powered by one of these devices.

But the dream of space fanatics is a true nuclear rocket that uses a fission reactor to power an engine two to three times more powerful than anything that relies on burning fossil fuels.Launched into space on conventional rockets, it could shorten the trip to Mars or give the Space Force unprecedented mobility. Last week, NASA and DARPA, the U.S. military’s advanced technology laboratory, Announce A collaborative project called DRACO to build and test such a vehicle.

Harnessing this power holds a lot of promise, but it won’t be easy.

“DRACO has the potential to be another program announcement and then we get canceled or thrown in the trash,” said DARPA program manager Tabitha Dodson. overseas this project. These programs are approximately every 10 Or fifteen years, starting with the NERVA project in the 1960s to develop nuclear rockets, often stranded by complex engineering challenges. No nuclear rockets were ever shown.

Today’s engineers have some advantages, says Anthony Calomino, NASA’s DRACO program manager and head of the agency’s nuclear research. Advances in materials science, manufacturing techniques and computer modeling will make the job easier.

What makes it more challenging, however, are the stricter rules around atomic testing. The United States has only sent a nuclear reactor into space once before, through an Air Force program called SNAPSHOT.Ground testing of the reactor design — including sabotage of the reactor design — led to radioactive pollution at the Idaho National Laboratory.witty more knowledge about the dangers of nuclear activities, there won’t be any full power This time to test the reactor before going into space.

Instead, the designers plan to rely on commercial technology. DARPA has hired General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin to participate in the initial phase of the project and is expected to announce soon which companies will actually build and test the vehicle. The challenge of making the reactor as light as possible is a matter of materials science: Fission reactors use radioactive solid fuel — in this case, high-level low-enriched uranium– and a moderator, a substance that slows down the neutrons emitted by the fuel so they are more likely to collide with other fuel atoms and cause want chain reaction. In order for the reactor to be as efficient as possible, these materials need to withstand high temperatures.Once the reactor is running, it will heat high-pressure liquid hydrogen, which will hand in The gas is ejected from the nozzle to propel the vehicle.

Safety is a top priority for the program and its leaders know the public well Fear of radioactivity. The good news is that fission reactors are relatively inert until turned on.The bad news — “the single event that will drive our safety requirements,” according to Calomino — is that if the reactor is submerged in water after some sort of launch failure, fission reactions could start May spread dangerous radioactive material. The solution is to use a neutron-absorbing material, happily called a neutron poison, that can deploy at any time in the event of a malfunction and stop the reaction. “In any event, we’re going to prevent the reactor from becoming critical,” Dodson said.

If problems arise while testing the reactor exist track, which is far enough from Earth—at least 1,000 kilometers, but possibly farther—to have few immediate consequences.The ultimate plan is to keep the vehicle exist track A test in hundreds of yearsfinish. (Another US space reactor, SNAP-10A, is still in orbit, although it is obviously separated.)

Currently, the project is still on the drawing board, with hopes to complete the design by 2025. The goal is to fly the car in 2027 — but, like most people space technology predictwhich is an optimistic predictionHowever, Dodson noted, “Once we show that we can move a platform in space while using a nuclear reactor, someone will optimize it.”

In addition to deep space exploration and the opportunity for the Space Force to overcome “tyranny of volume“—human activity increasingly targeting the vast space between Earth and the moon—this project may have other benefits. It could provide new insights into building small, efficient power-generating reactors on Earth or the moon: NASA There is already a pilot program develop nuclear power for future lunar settlements.


Image Interlude

In 1961, an unidentified NASA researcher holds a slide rule and poses for a photograph of a scale model of a nuclear-powered spacecraft—with the nuclear reactor and engine on the right side of the model, and the crew at a safe distance on the left.

Image of an article titled Space Business: Atoms for Space

photo: nasa

Consider this another entry my effort Today’s NASA photographers are urged to rival the incredible portraits taken by astronauts and scientists of the 20th century.

space debris

honorable mention. Earlier Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley receive rare Space Medal of Honor because of their job as test pilots SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraftwhich returned human spaceflight to the U.S. after a nine-year hiatus, and pioneered new ways of working between the space agency and private companies.

Virgin Orbit’s Capital Conundrum. Founder Richard Branson Investments Another $10 million Enter the satellite launch company he founded (NASDAQ: VORB ), but its cash burn rate, launch failures and increasingly stringent terms suggest it could face bankruptcy or be acquired within the next few months.

The United States sanctioned Chinese SAR companies. Spacety, a Chinese satellite company, is sanctioned The U.S. government said it provided Ukrainian space-based radar images to the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary group designated by the U.S. as a criminal group. Spacety has self-proclaimed It did not provide any data to Wagner.

Axiom is building a business around government astronauts. Space company Axiom, which flies passengers to the International Space Station and is developing its own space station, said this week that most passenger service demand comes from from the government No space program of its own, no tourists with deep pockets.The company’s second mission to the International Space Station is expected later this year and is thought to be Including two astronauts from Saudi Arabia.

SpaceX wins cargo contract. The U.S. Air Force signed a $102 million deal Partnering with Elon Musk’s space company to develop a system for point-to-point delivery of cargo on is The idea is still in its early stages and faces considerable logistical and operational challenges.

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This is issue 167 of our newsletter. Hope your week is having a great time!Send your predictions about Virgin Orbit’s financial fortunes, forgotten history of nuclear space technology, tips and informed opinions to

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