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General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) announced on 9 September it has delivered a design concept for a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) reactor to power future manned missions to Mars for a NASA-funded study.

The study, managed by Analytical Mechanics Associates (AMA), explored a design space defined by key performance parameters as well as figures of merit. The GA-EMS design exceeded the key performance parameters and optimized the NTP reactor for manufacturability, the highest ranked figure of merit.

GA-EMS is uniquely positioned to develop and deliver a cost effective, safe NTP reactor system to progress future space missions,” stated Scott Forney, the company’s President. “This is an exciting effort that directly aligns with our 60+ years of nuclear energy research and development, including nuclear reactor design and deployment, and our expertise in space systems.”

GA-EMS’ NTP reactor concept leverages advances in modern nuclear materials and manufacturing methods with valuable experience from the company’s involvement on NASA Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Project Rover in the 1960s; one of the first programmes to demonstrate the feasibility of space-based nuclear thermal propulsion. The company fabricated some 6t of the nuclear fuel kernels for the project then, in 1965, was also directly involved in nuclear fuel testing and characterization for the SNAP-10A reactor, the only US nuclear power reactor launched into space, which powered the satellite for 43 days. The fuel used for that reactor is the same fuel that has been used since the 1950s in the 66 TRIGA (Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics) reactors built in the US and around the world. GA-EMS continues to build on these technologies today.

The GA-EMS design proposes new features that address issues observed in historical designs, such as fuel element corrosion, and achieves a compact core using High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) instead of High-Enriched Uranium (HEU). As a result, GA-EMS was invited recently to brief the National Academy of Sciences Engineering, and Medicine Committee on Space Nuclear Technologies.

NTP systems for NASA Human Mars Missions are achievable in the near-term, and our solution takes advantage of cutting-edge advances, especially with nuclear fuel and high temperature ceramic matrix composite materials. By applying modern science and engineering methods, GA-EMS is reducing risk in space NTP technology development and rapidly advancing the state-of-the-art,” observed Dr Christina Back, VP of Nuclear Technologies and Materials at GA-EMS.

The proposed NTP reactor builds on the significant experience in nuclear propulsion and fuel technologies GA-EMS has built up over the last 60+ years. (Image: General Atomics)

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