After banning destructive satellite tests, US plans to use nuclear power systems in space

After banning destructive satellite tests, US plans to use nuclear power systems in space

  • US looking at nuclear-powered spacecraft in space by 2027.
  • Defense Innovation Unit has granted contracts to two companies- Ultra Safe Nuclear and Avalanche Energy.
  • By 2026, DARPA plans to test out its own nuclear power prototypes in space.
The United States, Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) is advancing to test nuclear-powered prototypes in space by 2027. This move came after few months since Vice president Kamala Harris announced that the United States will no longer conduct destructive tests of satellites in space.

DIU has awarded contracts to two companies, Avalanche Energy to demonstrate next-gen nuclear propulsion including power capability for spacecraft and other to Ultra Safe Nuclear. Both of these companies will carry out unique test solutions that will give small spacecraft the ability to operate in cislunar space (between earth and moon). Companies will also aim to develop high-power payloads to support the expansion of the Department of Defense in space.

Programme manager for Nuclear Advanced Propulsion and Power, DIU, Major Ryan Weed said, “Advanced nuclear technologies will provide the speed, power, and responsiveness to maintain an operational advantage in space.” Seems like the United States is giving an extra hand to commercial companies including start-ups for innovating nuclear technology in space.

What to expect?
According to Ultra Safe Nuclear, it will demonstrate an encapsulated nuclear radioisotope, chargeable battery- EmberCore which will power applications in space. The radioisotope system will be able to produce 10x higher power levels and 1 million kWh of energy in just a few kilograms of fuel when compared to plutonium system.


A device Orbitron, developed by Avalanche Energy, will assist in fusion, producing energetic particles that will generate electricity or heat. This energy can be used to power advanced propulsion systems. This fusion concept is much more effective when compared to other fusion concepts. Orbitron devices are considered effective for space applications as they can be scaled down to different sizes, enabling them to use for propulsion and power source.

Keeping in mind, coming space missions will demand more electrical power to expand the capabilities of spacecraft for orbital change, transfer of materials between space shuttles and more.

Apart from DOD, NASA and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are aiming to adapt nuclear fission approaches for larger spacecraft. Also, on 4th May, DARPA announced that the company is ready to move forward with its project design for assembling a nuclear thermal rocket engine. The first flight demonstration is expected to take place by 2026.

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