Three companies will demonstrate their potential to power lunar infrastructure using nuclear fission systems under new joint NASA contracts announced Tuesday (June 21).
NASA and the US Department of Energy selected three design concept proposals that the government hopes could be ready for deployment on the moon by the late 2020s to support the space agency’s Artemis lunar exploration program.
NASA also sees these $5 million contracts as potentially useful for exploring Mars and other deep space targets.
“The development of these early designs will help us lay the foundation for strengthening our long-term human presence on other worlds,” Jim Reuter, deputy administrator for NASA’s Directorate of Space Technology, said in an agency press release (opens in new tab).
Related: The US military wants to demonstrate new nuclear power plants in space by 2027
The selected teams will be led by Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse and IX (a joint venture between Intuitive Machines and X-Energy). Their goal over the next 12 months is “to provide NASA with critical industry information that may lead to the joint development of a fully flight-certified fission energy system,” the agency said.
These are Phase 1 awards; NASA did not detail in the press release what the timeline for a Phase 2 contract would be, if indeed that is part of the plan.
The newly announced contracts join a fast-growing group of nuclear space initiatives, mostly on the military side, to advance the US government’s work in lunar exploration and space in general.
For example, on May 17, the US Defense Innovation Unit announced two prototype contracts for spacecraft nuclear propulsion and power, aiming to have an orbital flight demonstration in 2027.
And on May 4, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced its next phase of a project to design, develop and assemble a nuclear thermal rocket engine for a 2026 Earth orbit flight demonstration.
As the US military continues this work to monitor commercial and government activity in cislunar space, NASA is also considering nuclear opportunities for human exploration.
For example, NASA’s fiscal year 2023 budget request, which has not yet been approved by Congress, is $15 million (opens in new tab) support nuclear propulsion. The agency is also collaborating with DARPA’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, which aims to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion system for use in Earth-Moon space.