The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing a satellite that will be powered by nuclear propulsion tech.
According to Michael Leahy, it could give the United States a strategic advantage over its enemies by having a satellite that’s more maneuverable and less capable of attack. But the fear of nuclear energy gone wrong is a serious issue that will require more education and awareness before being accepted by the international community.
At a virtual event held by the Mitchell Institute, Leah discussed a new report about the use of satellites with nuclear propulsion, calling to increase the funding for this crucial tech.
Last year, the agency announced that it will start a $22 million project called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) which will use nuclear propulsion tech. If proven successful, it could pave the way for more satellites incorporating the same tech in the future.
The agency has observed NASA’s work on nuclear propulsion systems and realized its potential for military use. Leahy described the project as the next big bet they’ll need to make as quickly as possible.
Current U.S. satellites are only powered by chemical propellants, making them less maneuverable and vulnerable to space attacks from adversaries. Meanwhile, China has been developing vehicles with nuclear propulsion systems capable of changing orbits and tactically switching between offensive and defensive, depending on the mission.
Nuclear Propulsion For Space Exploration
Just imagine deep space exploration without the need for constant refueling. But while the possibilities it can bring are endless, it was abandoned due to due fears of backfire when it reenters the atmosphere. Just imagine the large-scale nuclear fallout if it burns out while reentering Earth’s atmosphere.
DARPA said that it is aware of the consequences and its feasibility is being studied by nuclear experts across the country. The DRACO mission, projected to launch in 2025, will use low enriched uranium – for starters. At the same time, a nuclear engineer at General Atomics said that it would still need to be carried out by conventional chemical rockets for safety reasons.
Meanwhile, Christopher Stone, a senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute, said the U.S. should pursue this tech due to the huge potential and tactical advantage it can provide for its critical military satellites, like early-warning and GPS satellites, so they won’t be sitting ducks when being targeted by adversaries’ anti-satellite weapons.
Nuclear Propulsion As An Advantage Against China
According to experts, the United States should invest in nuclear-powered systems to be competitive with China and other potential adversaries.
During a government meeting held last October, experts from the aerospace industry discussed how the U.S. stacks up against other potential adversaries when it comes to nuclear propulsion and other space techs. According to them, the U.S. is kinda lagging behind and must move quickly in order to catch up.
They added that nuclear propulsion could even be used for future Mars missions since they can accelerate a spacecraft for extended periods for a fraction of the propellant at high-thrust systems.