I had a pleasant surprise while attending SpaceCom this week – BWXT had an exhibition booth showcasing Nuclear Thermal Propulsion. In a nutshell, a nuclear reactor is used to heat hydrogen; the gas is then expelled from the reactor and delivers thrust. Without getting too much into the physics, it is essentially all about a momentum balance. What is important is the implications this technology can have on the energy industry.
This reactor is about a controlled nuclear reaction. The low enriched uranium is the fuel that creates the necessary heat, and the hydrogen is heated such that the desired thrust is achieved when ejected through the nozzle/diffuser. What applications could exist outside of space travel? My first thoughts are commercial aircraft and railroad travel, perhaps even large trucks and cars.
This idea has been around since the 1950’s, it appears. Click on the image above to see an old video about how this technology works. Below is a recent press release from BWXT.
BWXT Hosts NASA Officials for Demonstration of Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Technologies
LYNCHBURG, Va. – BWX Technologies, Inc. (NYSE:BWXT) today hosted officials from NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) for progress updates and technology demonstrations related to BWXT’s nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) program. Jim Reuter, NASA’s acting associate administrator of STMD, toured BWXT’s Advanced Technology Lab in Lynchburg, Virginia to learn more about BWXT’s progress on the program that could support a future crewed mission to Mars.
Reuter watched demonstrations of three key technologies that BWXT has been developing to support the NTP program:
1) Advanced welding – BWXT demonstrated a new welding technology developed specifically for NASA fuel element fabrication.
2) Metallography – Technologists showed how they solve challenges in fabricating specialized materials used in NTP development.
3) Fuel Element Filling – The company presented a simple yet innovative way that it can fill fuel elements.
Rex Geveden, BWXT’s president and chief executive officer, said, “We were extremely pleased for Jim to visit us today and see how rapidly this technology has progressed in just over a year. We believe that NTP is an ideal propulsion system to take humans to Mars, and our scientists and engineers are working every day to make that a reality.”
The reactor could be part of an NTP rocket engine designed to propel a spacecraft from Earth orbit to Mars and back. BWXT’s reactor design is based on low enriched uranium fuel. NTP for spaceflight has a number of advantages over chemical-based designs, primarily providing higher efficiency and greater power density. This would contribute to shorter travel times and lower exposure to cosmic radiation for astronauts.
In 2017, BWXT announced it had been awarded an $18.8 million contract from NASA for initial reactor concept development, initial fuel and core fabrication development, licensing support, and engine test program development. Work under the contract is expected to continue through 2019.
Director, Media & Public Relations