Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think.
This week: The return of the nuclear rocket, Virgin Orbit’s shaky finances, and sanctioning Chinese satellite firms.
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Nuclear tech is in season: Climate change and geopolitics have governments prolonging the lifespans of aging nuclear electricity plants and building new ones. Just last week, the US approved a smaller, modular nuclear reactor for electricity generation, only the seventh it has ever okayed.
Not surprisingly, that’s reflected in space as well. Nukes have always been intertwined with the space program as both a motivator to seize the orbital high ground and an enabler of long-term missions. Deep space missions regularly rely on nuclear power, using the heat emitted by radioactive substances to generate electricity without an 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 proper nuclear rocket, one using a fission reactor to run an engine two to three times more powerful than any motor dependent on combusting fossil fuels. Launched into space on a conventional rocket, it could shorten trips to Mars or give the Space Force unprecedented maneuverability. Last week, NASA and DARPA, the US military’s advanced tech lab, announced a collaborative project called DRACO to build and test exactly such a vehicle.
Harnessing that kind of power has a lot of promise, but it won’t be easy.
“There’s a risk that DRACO could become just another announcement to do a program and then we just get cancelled or thrown into the waste bucket,” says Tabitha Dodson, the DARPA program manager overseeing the project. These programs come around every 10 or fifteen years, starting with the NERVA project to develop a nuclear rocket in the 1960s, and they tend to run aground on complex engineering challenges. No nuclear rocket has ever been demonstrated.
Today’s engineers have some advantages, says Anthony Calomino, NASA’s program manager for DRACO and the official in charge of the agency’s nuclear research. Advances in materials science, manufacturing techniques, and computer modeling will make the job easier.
Making it more challenging, though, are stricter rules around atomic testing. The US has only put a nuclear reactor in space once before, through an Air Force program called SNAPSHOT. Ground testing of reactor designs—including the intentional destruction of one—contributed to radioactive contamination at the Idaho National Laboratory. With greater knowledge about the dangers of nuclear activity, there won’t be any fully-powered testing of the reactor before it goes to space this time around.
Instead, the designers plan to rely on commercial technology. DARPA hired General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin for the initial phase of the project, and expects to announce the firm that will actually build and test the vehicle soon. The challenge of making the reactor as light as possible is a materials science problem: Fission reactors use a radioactive solid fuel—in this case, high-assay low-enriched uranium—and a moderator, a substance that slows the neutrons the fuel emits so they are more likely to collide with other fuel atoms and cause the desired chain reaction. To make the reactor as efficient as possible, those materials will need to withstand high temperatures. Once the reactor is running, it will heat highly-pressurized liquid hydrogen, which will turn into gas and be ejected from a nozzle to propel the vehicle.
Safety is top of mind for the program, whose leaders are well aware of public fears around radioactivity. The good news is that fission reactors are relatively inert until they are turned on. The bad news—“the single event that is going to drive our safety requirements,” per Calomino—is that if the reactor is immersed in a body of water after some kind of launch failure, a fission reaction could begin that could spread dangerous radioactive material. The solution is to have a material that absorbs neutrons, cheerfully called neutron poison, ready to deploy during a failure and stop such a reaction. “We will prevent the reactor, in any scenario, from going critical,” Dodson says.
If something goes wrong while the reactor is being tested in orbit, it is far enough away from Earth—at least 1000 kilometers but likely more—that there would be little immediate consequence. The ultimate plan is for the vehicle to remain in orbit for a few hundred years once testing is complete. (The other US space reactor, SNAP-10A, is still in orbit, though it is apparently breaking apart.)
For now, the project is still on the drawing board, with hopes to finalize its design by 2025. The goal is to fly the vehicle in 2027—but, as with most space technology forecasts, that’s an optimistic projection. Dodson notes, however, that “once we demonstrate we can move a platform though space while using a nuclear reactor, someone will come on and optimize that.”
Besides deep space exploration and a chance for the Space Force to overcome the “tyranny of volume”—the sheer amount of space between the Earth and the Moon where human activity is increasingly aimed—this project could have other benefits. It could offer new insight for building small, efficient power-generating reactors on Earth, or on the Moon: NASA already has a pilot program developing nuclear power for future moon settlements.
In 1961, an unidentified NASA researcher posed, slide rule in hand, for a photo with a scale model of a nuclear-powered spacecraft—the nuclear reactor and engine is on the right side of the model, while the crew would be on the left side at a safe distance.
Consider this another entry in my efforts urging today’s NASA photographers to match the incredible portraits taken of astronauts and scientists in the 20th century.
Honorable mention. Former astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were awarded the rare Space Medal of Honor for their work as test pilots on SpaceX’s crew Dragon spacecraft, which returned human spaceflight to the US after a nine-year gap and pioneered new methods of collaboration between the space agency and private firms.
Virgin Orbit’s capital conundrum. Founder Richard Branson invested another $10 million into the satellite-launching firm (NASDAQ:VORB) he founded, but its cash burn rate, a failed launch, and increasingly strict terms suggest that the firm may face bankruptcy or a takeover in the months ahead.
US sanctions Chinese SAR firm. Spacety, a Chinese satellite firm, was sanctioned by the US government, which said it provided space radar imagery of Ukraine to the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization designated by the US as a criminal group. Spacety has since claimed it did not provide any data to Wagner.
Axiom is building a business around government astronauts. Axiom, a space company that flies passengers to the International Space Station and is developing its own space station, said this week that most of the demand for passenger services is coming from governments without their own space programs, not tourists with deep pockets. The company’s second mission to the ISS is expected later this year and is thought to include two astronauts from Saudi Arabia.
SpaceX wins cargo contract. The US Air Force inked a $102 million deal with Elon Musk’s space firm to develop systems for delivering cargo from point to point on the Earth. It’s early days for the idea, which faces considerable logistical and operational challenges.
This was issue 167 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your predictions for Virgin Orbit’s financial fate, forgotten histories of nuclear space technology, tips, and informed opinions to email@example.com.