Lynchburg-based BWX Technologies announced Wednesday it will supply nuclear fuel and components for a U.S. Air Force program that is developing a nuclear fission reactor to power spacecraft.
BWXT’s Advanced Technologies unit will be on a team led by Bethesda, Maryland-based aerospace firm Lockheed Martin and with Space Nuclear Power Corp., aka SpaceNukes, out of Los Alamos, New Mexico. BWXT’s work will primarily be done at its Lynchburg-area facilities, the company said in a news release.
The team will work on the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Joint Emergent Technology Supplying On-Orbit Nuclear, or JETSON, program, which is developing a nuclear reactor that can provide space vehicles with four times the electricity that conventional solar arrays produce without needing to be in continuous sunlight, according to the news release.
“The JETSON team will address the growing need for advanced spacecraft mobility, space situational awareness and power generation that surpasses traditional spacecraft capabilities,” the news release stated.
BWXT said the reactor “draws heavily from the design and lessons” of the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology, or KRUSTY, demonstration from 2018, when NASA and the National Nuclear Security Administration said their experiments showed that a nuclear fission reactor could continuously power a spacecraft for years.
“Our extensive nuclear fuel and component manufacturing experience on new and legacy programs, along with our unique infrastructure, will help the team build upon the KRUSTY demonstration, positioning it to deliver and fly a space nuclear system under the JETSON program,” BWXT Advanced Technologies President Joe Miller said in the release Wednesday.
In July, BWXT announced it would make and deliver an assembled, fueled nuclear reactor for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program under DARPA, the U.S. Department of Defense’s research and development agency, and also on a team led by Lockheed Martin.
DRACO seeks to create the world’s first demonstration spacecraft using a high-thrust nuclear thermal propulsion system, with a launch goal of 2027. JETSON is focused on providing electricity to power spacecraft systems as well as nuclear electric propulsion, which produces a lower amount of thrust than nuclear thermal propulsion but could accelerate spacecraft for extended periods of time. Both forms of nuclear propulsion are more efficient than traditional chemical rockets, according to NASA.
BWXT (NYSE:BWXT) provides nuclear fuel and components for the U.S. military and is developing other technologies such as nuclear medicine. It employs about 7,000 people, including 2,600 in the Lynchburg area, most of whom work at the company’s Mt. Athos site in Campbell County.
The Air Force Research Laboratory is the Air Force’s main research and development arm. It “plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force,” according to its website.