The US Defense Department is awarding more than $33.7 million to Lockheed Martin – along with Space Nuclear Power Corp and BWX Technologies – to begin development of a nuclear spacecraft as part of the Joint Emergent Technology Supply On Orbital Nuclear (JETSON) project.
It will be a technology demonstrator using nuclear fission to power Stirling engines and generate 6 to 20 kW of electricity. According to Lockheed Martin, this is 4 times more power than conventional solar panels produce. This eliminates the need for constant sunlight. This method is based on data obtained from NASA's Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) experiment, which explored how to power future outposts on the Moon and, ultimately, using nuclear power. eventually on Mars.
The nuclear engine is inert at launch and will not turn on until the JETSON spacecraft is in safe Earth orbit. Once the reactor is activated and power begins to be generated, electricity will power the Hall effect engines (a type of ion engine that is electrified to create acceleration). Such engines are already used on the LM2100 satellites. The nuclear reactor will provide the electricity needed not only for the engine, but also to power the onboard systems and payload.
Lockheed Martin says the spacecraft will “enhance the maneuverability and energy capabilities that will shape future Space Force operations.” It is currently in the preliminary design review stage.
The last time the US military launched a nuclear reactor into space was in 1965. Then the United States launched an experimental nuclear-powered satellite, SNAP-10A, which was also equipped with the first ion engine ever to fly into space.