DIU selects nuclear-powered spacecraft designs for 2027 demonstrations

DIU’s small spacecraft demonstrations will complement work done by DARPA and NASA on nuclear propulsion for larger spacecraft.

WASHINGTON – The Defense Innovation Unit announced May 17 that it has selected Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. and Avalanche to develop small nuclear-powered spacecraft for planned space demonstrations in 2027.

DIU, a Silicon Valley-based Pentagon organization that works with commercial industries and start-ups, awarded both companies “other transaction” contracts to demonstrate nuclear power and propulsion technology for future Defense Department space missions. OT contracts, increasingly used in military space projects, are negotiated faster than traditional defense procurement.

Ultra Safe Nuclear and Avalanche selection comes just seven months after IUD issued a request for small nuclear-powered engines for space missions beyond Earth’s orbit.

Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear will demonstrate a rechargeable, encapsulated nuclear radioisotope battery called EmberCore.

Avalanche, a venture-backed fusion energy startup also based in Seattle, has developed a portable microfusion reactor called the Orbitron. “Compared to other fusion concepts, Orbitron devices hold promise for space applications as they can be reduced in size and allow use as a propulsion and power source,” DIU said.

Ultra-safe nuclear power last year won a contract from the Idaho National Laboratory to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion reactor concept for a NASA space exploration mission. The company is also a subcontractor to General Atomics and Blue Origin in the first phase of the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program overseen by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

DARPA plans to launch the DRACO nuclear thermal propulsion demonstration in 2025.

Air Force Maj. Ryan Weed, manager of DIU’s advanced nuclear power and propulsion program, said the two small spacecraft prototypes funded by DIU complement work done by DARPA and NASA on nuclear propulsion for larger spacecraft.

“The IUD program is aimed at small, highly maneuverable spacecraft using fusion and radioisotopes,” Weed said. “In short, chemical and solar-based systems will not provide the power needed for future Department of Defense missions.”

Nuclear technology has traditionally been developed and operated by the government, Weed said, “but we have discovered a thriving ecosystem of commercial companies, including startups, innovating in space.”

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