Lynchburg-based BWX Technologies hopes to provide the fuel that will propel a spacecraft to Mars and back.
To that end, the nuclear services company, which employs about 2,600 people in the Lynchburg area, continues to work with NASA to provide coated reactor fuels to support a space nuclear propulsion project.
Nuclear thermal propulsion is one of the technologies capable of propelling a spacecraft to Mars and back. It comes with a unique challenge: the fuels and reactors needed for the mission must be able to withstand the extremely high temperatures and corrosive conditions encountered in the engine during spaceflight.
Joe Miller, president of BWXT Advanced Technologies – which supports the company’s research and development interests in nuclear technology applications – said the goal of nuclear thermal propulsion is to dramatically reduce travel time between orbit low terrestrial and Mars.
The work BWXT is doing is one step in a larger plan to help NASA.
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“NASA and the Department of Defense are currently focused on thermal propulsion and BWXT is well positioned to meet those needs and meet that desire,” Miller said. “There’s almost a transformation in the way humans think about our relative space, and it’s all about how can you get there, how fast, how much energy can you have in space to perform those long transits? So not just from a thermal propulsion point of view, but also from a space power generation point of view, and it’s a super exciting time right now and we’ve been able to put all the capabilities and infrastructure to make these things a reality in the next decade.
He said NASA has been wondering for many years what performance it can get from a spacecraft to reduce transit time, because astronauts don’t want to be in space for nine months just to travel to Mars, which averages around 140 million. miles from Earth.
He said NASA was wondering how it could cut that time by a third and what kinds of technologies could help make that possible.
“NASA does a fantastic job of road mapping where the technologies are, how mature they are in preparation for launching a spacecraft, and then operating that spacecraft to get to Mars,” Miller said. .
Nuclear thermal propulsion technology has been around since the late 1950s, and a lot of work was done in the 1960s and early 1970s, Miller said.
BWXT entered into a contract with NASA in 2017.
BWXT’s involvement in nuclear thermal propulsion dates back to the 1960s when it contributed to NASA’s NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) program which involved the design, construction and testing of reactors and rocket engines , Miller said.
“NASA is making advances in space nuclear propulsion, working collaboratively with government and with industry for fuel supply. Innovative nuclear fuels and reactors that support nuclear thermal propulsion are essential to our plans for future human missions to Mars,” said Dayna Ise, space nuclear propulsion manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Due to BWXT’s unique capabilities in that it not only manufactures reactors and nuclear fuel, but also has a design group that focuses on nuclear space, NASA asked it to mature the technology for a proposed mid-2030s mission and launch to Mars, Miller says.
Now BWXT, in conjunction with the Idaho National Laboratory and NASA, must design the reactor, fabricate and fabricate test parts, and test those items.
“Since we have all the talent, we have all the facilities and we have the licenses and know how to process and handle nuclear fuel, they were very pleased with the progress we have made in maturing nuclear thermal propulsion.” Miller said.
BWXT is now testing fuel. A test item is the enclosed fuel that enters a test reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory.
“So since we have a much better understanding of what the internals of the nuclear reactor should look like, including the nuclear fuel, we did a lot of development on the nuclear fuel,” Miller said. “Now that we’re making this fuel, we can encapsulate it in a test item and get lots of relevant data from a test reactor inside one of the national labs.”
He said that’s the most exciting part because the design is a good concept on paper, but testing can prove the concept.
“When you retrieve test data from a test item, it’s the truth about what will happen in a relevant environment when the reactor is operating,” he said. “Nuclear thermal propulsion is a game-changing technology and fuel element testing allows you to increase product maturity quite quickly. That’s why it’s such an exciting time.
Over the next two years, there will be a series of rigorous tests that will take place in addition to the fuel element tests to continue to mature the reactor design, Miller said.
Then there will be more tests taking place for the spacecraft over the next 5-10 years. Then there will be manufacturing and testing in space, including the initial launch and the proposed crewed mission to Mars in the mid-2030s.
A small number of technologies are being considered that could propel a spacecraft to Mars. Although other companies may be involved, BWXT is the only company at this point that has a contract to produce fuel for testing, Miller said.
Miller described the fuel as resembling small BB pellets. The fuel is a sphere of uranium and has a coating on the outside of the sphere to be able to shield the uranium and encapsulate the fuel itself.
Thousands of these “BBs” are packaged and bundled into a form of fuel, which would go into a fuel rod inserted into a reactor the size of a 55 gallon drum.
“We’re going to create a whole new product for the government to explore deep space,” he said. “So sending astronauts into deep space is a step this country has wanted to take for several decades. And it’s the enabling technology to get there.
Challenges in creating the fuel include environmental conditions, Miller said.
“The reactor is extremely hot,” he said. “There are a lot of nuclear reactors working for electricity generation. The temperature of this reactor is much higher than that of these reactors. So the challenge is really a materials science challenge.”
Miller said about 50 BWXT staff work on this fuel.
“My staff are very proud. It’s one of the reasons they love coming to work every day. It’s a very intense program, but they know they’re enabling the next big step for all of humanity,” he said.