Washington – The White House issued on December 16 a new space policy directive aimed at serving as a strategic roadmap for the development of space nuclear power and propulsion technologies.
Space Policy Directive (SPD) 6, entitled “National Strategy for Space Atomic Energy and Propulsion”, from surface nuclear power systems to nuclear thermal propulsion, federal government agencies in developing capabilities collectively known as space Discusses areas of responsibilities and cooperation between. Atomic Power and Propulsion (SNPP).
“This memorandum establishes a national strategy to ensure the development and use of SNPP systems when appropriate to enable and achieve the scientific, exploration, national security and commercial objectives of the United States,” 12- The page states the document.
SPD-6 sets out three principles for the development of space nuclear systems: safety, security, and stability. It describes the roles and responsibilities for the various agencies involved with the development, use or oversight of such systems.
However, most of the documentation is a roadmap for the development of nuclear power and propulsion systems. It sets a goal to develop the uranium fuel processing capabilities required for surface power and propulsion systems in space, by mid-2020. By the end of 2020, NASA will complete the development and testing of a surface nuclear power system for lunar missions that may be scalable to Mars for subsequent missions.
SPD-6 calls for the establishment of the “technical foundations and capabilities” necessary for nuclear thermal propulsion systems, by the end of 2020. It sets the goal of long-term use of advanced radioisotope power systems, radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) by 2030.
Several initiatives mentioned in SPD-6 are already in progress. NASA is working closely with the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop nuclear reactors on the surface, a project called Kilopower, which includes efforts to get a proposal to develop a reactor for use on the Moon . NASA is also studying nuclear thermal propulsion, an initiative supported by Congress that has earmarked funding for that effort in NASA’s Space Technology Program.
“We have nuclear power, kilopower activities – and what we are trying to do is a common operational picture for defense, NASA and DOE,” a senior administration official said. SPD-6.
This roadmap and schedule is also to prioritize those activities. Surface nuclear power is needed in the near term to support lunar missions in the later decades, especially to handle a two-week lunar night. Nuclear thermal propulsion, as well as alternative nuclear electric propulsion technologies, are less important because they are primarily intended to support later missions to Mars.
“Those things are important to go to Mars,” the official said of nuclear proliferation, “but first we are using the moon and the terrestrial capabilities and technologies to set foot on the moon.”
Another issue addressed in SPD-6 is the use of different types of uranium. Tests in 2018 used highly enriched uranium, or HEU, as part of the Kilopower program. That project, and discussions by NASA and DOE to use HEU for flight reactors, raised concerns in the nuclear nonproliferation community. They worried that it could set a precedent for new production of HEUs, which are also used in nuclear weapons.
SPD-6 prohibits, but is not prohibited, the use of HEUs in space nuclear systems. Prior to selecting HEU, or for fission reactor systems, any nuclear fuel other than less enriched uranium (LEU) for any given SNPP design or mission, the sponsoring agency will assess the feasibility of alternative nuclear fuels Will conduct a thorough technical review. “Says it.
“We want to keep those proliferation concerns in our mind,” said a senior administration official. “We do not necessarily want HEU to be ruled if this is the only way to get a mission out of it, but we want to be very vigilant about it.”
An official said, set “an extremely high bar” for non-defense use of HEU on space systems, citing progress on high-assay low-enriched uranium, which is similar to HEU systems with only a modest collective penalty. Can provide level.
The SPD-6 was released a week after the White House issued a new national space policy during a National Space Council meeting. That comprehensive policy briefly addressed space nuclear power and propulsion, discussing roles for various agencies, but did not mention the roadmap or other details found in SPD-6.
Many thought that the issuance of a national space policy would end the administration’s work on space policy, which would surprise the SPD-6. A senior administration official said various space policy directives had been worked out and the national space policy had been slowed by the coronovirus epidemic, but would not dismiss additional announcements in the remaining five weeks of the Trump administration.