Lockheed Martin Jets into Nuclear Electrical Spacecraft Power

Lockheed Martin Jets into Nuclear Electrical Spacecraft Power

November 08, 2023

Hot off the heels of the DRACO announcement in July 2023, Lockheed Martin was awarded $33.7 million from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) for the Joint Emergent Technology Supplying On-Orbit Nuclear (JETSON) High Power program to mature high-power nuclear electric power and propulsion technologies and spacecraft design. The JETSON effort is now in the preliminary design review stage, with the option to go to critical design review level.

With Space Nuclear Power Corp (SpaceNukes) and BWX Technologies, Inc. (BWXT) as our partners – both of whom carry deep expertise in nuclear power and reactor design – our JETSON team will address the escalating need for advanced spacecraft mobility, situational awareness, and power generation that far surpasses traditional spacecraft capabilities. Providing both on-board electrical power and the ability to power electric propulsion Hall thrusters used on Lockheed Martin’s LM2100 satellites, JETSON serves as a critical step forward in using nuclear electric propulsion to get humans to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

“Nuclear fission development for space applications is key to introducing technologies that could dramatically change how we move and explore in the vastness of space,” said Barry Miles, JETSON program manager and principal investigator, at Lockheed Martin. “From high-power electrical subsystem and electric propulsion, to nuclear thermal propulsion or fission surface power, Lockheed Martin is focused on developing these systems with our important government agencies and industry partners.”

Nuts and Bolts

JETSON will use a fission reactor that generates heat, which is then transferred to Stirling engines to produce between 6 kWe and 20 kWe of electricity – four times the power of conventional solar arrays without the need to be in continuous sunlight. The reactor draws heavily from the design and lessons of the 2018 Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) demonstration led by NASA and the DoE’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

“A future JETSON flight experiment will enhance maneuver and power capabilities shaping future space force operations,” said Andy Phelps, CEO of SpaceNukes. “The United States has not flown a reactor in space since 1965. As the first novel reactor tested in more than 50 years, we’re giving our country a technical leap – both terrestrially and on-orbit – as well as the ability to expand future space exploration.”

This technology has the potential to produce much higher electrical output than spacecraft powered by solar panels, which generally garner about 600 watts of power, or the equivalent of six lightbulbs. For deep space exploration missions not as close to the sun, or in shadowed regions, nuclear electric-powered subsystems are a great alternative to have in a company’s power-generation toolkit.

Safety First

As on other space nuclear programs, safety is a top priority with JETSON. Uranium, prior to the start of the fission process, is benign. During launch, the reactor is in an inert, inactive configuration and is designed to not turn on and start the fission process until the spacecraft is in a safe non-decaying orbit far out from Earth.

“BWXT’s support as the nuclear manufacturer on the JETSON program complements Lockheed Martin’s heritage space flight capabilities and SpaceNukes’ nuclear design expertise,” said Joe Miller, BWXT Advanced Technologies LLC president. “Building upon the KRUSTY demonstration, BWXT investment and unique infrastructure, the team is well-positioned to deliver and fly a space nuclear system under the JETSON program.”

The development work will be done across the country including at Lockheed Martin’s facility near Denver, at AFRL’s facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at SpaceNukes’ facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico and at BWXT in Lynchburg, Virginia. Several New Mexico-based national labs, facilities and suppliers will also support.