Satellites Space

Nuclear propulsion would aid military satellites in maneuvering out of harm’s path, according to a report

A spacecraft propelled by a nuclear propulsion technology will be launched into orbit as part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency experiment. This technology, according to Michael Leahy, who is the director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, might provide the US military an edge over adversaries by making satellites highly maneuverable and far less vulnerable to assault. But, as Leahy pointed out on January 14, skepticism and concern about nuclear energy are issues that will require greater education and understanding to “make individuals comfortable with this.”

Leahy spoke at a Mitchell Institute virtual event hosted by the Air Force Association to discuss recent research endorsing the usage of nuclear thermal propulsion for US military satellites and urging the Defense Department to enhance funding for the technology.

DARPA stated last year that it will invest roughly $30 million in a spacecraft named Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO), which will use a nuclear thermal propulsion technology. If successful, the research might pave the path for military satellites to have nuclear propulsion systems.

The DRACO project, according to Leahy, is “the next major bet we decided to make in space.” NASA’s work on nuclear propulsion solutions for the space exploration has piqued the agency’s interest, and it believes the technology may be extended to military satellites.

According to the Mitchell report, satellites fueled by chemical propellants have poor maneuverability, making them easy targets for anti-satellite weapons. “Chinese space maneuver warfare forces are going to include vehicles with electric propulsion and nuclear thermal capable of rapidly shifting between orbits to execute offensive and defensive missions,” according to the report.

Nuclear reactors can run in space for years without needing to be refueled, making them an attractive option for deep space travel. However, due to fears that harmful radioactive elements would reenter the atmosphere, the United States abandoned efforts to deploy nuclear propulsion for the Earth-orbiting satellites decades ago.

DARPA is very well conscious of the safety concerns, according to Leahy, and these issues are being discussed with the Department of Energy nuclear experts. He described the DRACO demonstration, which is set to debut in 2025, as “a journey of discovery,” emphasizing that the demonstrator will employ low-enriched uranium.

Nuclear-powered satellites would be sent into space by conventional chemical rockets, according to Ron Faibish, a nuclear engineer with General Atomics.

“There will be no nuclear power propelling anything on Earth via the atmosphere when we launch,” Faibish stated. “Where there would be no chance of reentry,” the DRACO demonstrator will be sent into cislunar space above Earth orbit.

General Atomics was awarded a $22 million DARPA deal to develop the DRACO nuclear reactor. The US Space Force should examine adopting nuclear propulsion for important national security space systems such as GPS or missile-warning satellites, according to Christopher Stone, who is a senior fellow for the space studies at Mitchell Institute and report author.

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