Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies (USNC-Tech), a Seattle-based nuclear tech company, has delivered a design concept to NASA as part of a study on nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) systems, which can greatly simplify space exploration. The engine differs from its previously created or invented counterparts by the safest design.
NTP concept is expected to allow the spacecraft to fly from Earth to Mars in just three months rather than approximately seven with the best current technology. In addition to the flight to Mars, the goals of the ambitious project include other missions within the solar system.
The USNC-Tech NTP concept uses a specialized variation of USNC’s FCM fuel – a Fully Ceramic Micro-encapsulated (FCM) fuel, featuring High-Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU), to power the engine’s reactor. The HALEU is derived from reprocessed civilian nuclear fuel enriched between 5% and 20%. The fuel is then encapsulated into particles coated with zirconium carbide (ZrC).
This variation enables high-temperature operation while maintaining the integrity of the fuel. According to the company, the FCM fuel is extremely rugged, enabling a new family of inherently safe space-optimized reactor designs that ensure astronaut safety and environmental protection. This unique NTP concept delivers high thrust and specific impulse previously only achievable through high-enriched uranium.
In an NTP system, exceptionally high levels of the thrust are achieved by passing propellant through a specialized reactor core, reducing interplanetary transfer durations. Additionally, NTP systems achieve expanded payload mass capabilities due to their two-fold increase in specific impulse compared with chemical propulsion systems.
“Key to USNC-Tech’s design is a conscious overlap between terrestrial and space reactor technologies,” explained Dr. Paolo Venneri, CEO of USNC-Tech. “This allows us to leverage the advancements in nuclear technology and infrastructure from terrestrial systems and apply them to our space reactors.” A prime example of this is the nuclear fuel at the core of the USNC-Tech NTP concept.
USNC-Tech’s concept is aimed at NASA, the US Department of Defense (DoD), and private space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. The concept focuses on helping to revolutionize the Space travel by providing a more efficient alternative to chemical rockets used to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) and beyond. NTP is one that can significantly improve the performance and speed of future spacecraft. However, engineers need to solve the problems of this technology related to safely and extremely high temperatures in the reactor core.