WASHINGTON — The Department of Defense is looking to industry for nuclear-powered propulsion technology to drive its spacecraft, freeing them from the low-energy limitations of current electric and solar-based propulsion systems.

Those traditional systems have largely served government space systems well. Once they reach their intended orbit, most satellites don’t need to move very much. Propulsion systems are generally used to readjust satellite positions when they drift out of their assigned position or to avoid collisions, while occasionally transporting those satellites to new orbits to continue their mission.

However, future U.S. military missions may require much more maneuverability and power. Future U.S. missions will need more electrical power to more frequently change orbits, transfer other objects to new orbits and operate beyond Earth’s orbit, according to a Sept. 9 solicitation from the Defense Innovation Unit, a DoD organization that helps match mature, commercial solutions to military needs.

Moreover, the shrinking size of many space systems driven by the increased capabilities of small satellites and cubesats imposes volume constraints on future propulsion systems. In other words, the military wants more power, but not by simply building bigger propulsion systems or adding more solar panels.

To that end, DIU’s government customers are looking for lightweight, long-lasting commercial nuclear power solutions that can provide greater propulsion and electric power for small and medium-sized spacecraft. Interested companies that can show a plan for prototype development within three to five years could be awarded other transaction authority contracts to support laboratory-based prototyping of such systems, followed by a path to flight-based testing. Responses to the solicitation are due no later than 11:59 p.m. ET on Sept. 23.

This isn’t the military’s first time dipping its toe into developing nuclear-powered spacecraft. Most recently, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency issued contracts to three companies in April to design a nuclear thermal propulsion system for space. The program, known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, seeks to build nuclear thermal propulsion that can enable rapid maneuver in space, particularly for cislunar operations.

General Atomics, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin are the prime contractors on that effort.

Meanwhile, companies are beginning to offer commercial services that can refuel satellites or supplement them with their own propulsion systems. SpaceLogistics, for example, introduced a Mission Extension Vehicle that can latch onto a customer’s satellite on orbit and then maneuver it around with it’s own propulsion system. Orbit Fab, which recently saw investments from Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, is building gas stations on orbit. These efforts provide another option for getting more maneuverability and service life out of existing propulsion systems.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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