The Donald Trump administration in the US has issued a new space policy directive for the use of nuclear power and propulsion in space.
NASA said that the issuance of the new Space Policy Directive – 6 (SPD-6) on Wednesday will help propel its next giant leap — creating a sustainable presence on the Moon and sending astronauts to Mars.
Space nuclear systems power spacecraft for missions where alternative power sources are inadequate, such as environments that are too dark for solar power or too far away to carry sufficient quantities of chemical fuels.
Space nuclear systems include radioisotope power systems and nuclear reactors used for power, heating, or propulsion.
As per the new directive, the US will pursue goals for space nuclear power and propulsion development and utilization that are both enabling and ambitious.
It will develop capabilities that enable the production of fuel suitable to a range of planetary surface and in-space space nuclear power and propulsion applications; demonstrate a fission power system on the Moon, and establish technical foundations and capabilities that will enable options for in-space nuclear propulsion.
Among other principles established by the directive include the US will develop advanced radioisotope power systems to enable survivable surface systems and extend the robotic exploration of the solar system.
As per the directive, the US will adhere to principles of safety, security, and sustainability in its development and utilization of space nuclear power and propulsion systems.
“NASA strongly supports the White House’s continued leadership on the agency’s Artemis program, which includes landing the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024. At the Moon we will prepare for new science and human missions deeper into the solar system,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.
“SPD-6 bolsters the agency’s efforts to develop affordable, safe, and reliable nuclear systems, including technology capable of continuously powering operations on other worlds and propelling future human missions to Mars.”
In support of SPD-6, NASA’s near-term priority is to mature and then demonstrate a fission surface power system on the Moon.
NASA, the US Department of Energy, and industry will design, fabricate, and test a 10-kilowatt class fission surface power system.
NASA plans to demonstrate the system on the Moon in the late 2020s, providing power for sustainable lunar surface operations and testing its potential for use on Mars.
The US space agency is also advancing nuclear thermal and nuclear electric propulsion capabilities. Nuclear propulsion can enable robust human exploration beyond the Moon.
For crewed missions to the Red Planet, a traditional chemical propulsion system would require a prohibitively high propellant mass, NASA said.