DoD seeks commercially available nuclear propulsion for small spacecraft

New solicitation from the Defense Innovation Unit looks for “mature commercial technologies that can provide short-term power and propulsion”

WASHINGTON – The Defense Innovation Unit last week issued a tender for small nuclear-powered engines for space missions beyond Earth orbit.

The DoD wants “lightweight, portable, long-lasting power sources that can support propulsion and stationary power for detection and communication on small and medium-sized spacecraft,” the solicitation said.

DIU claims that electric and solar propulsion systems are not suitable for missions beyond Earth orbit and are too large to be used on modern commercial spacecraft. “Advanced propulsion technology that enables high delta-V and power supply to payloads, while maintaining fuel efficiency, is required to enable new sets of DoD missions to be deployed in space. “

Submissions are due September 23. DIU could award contracts within 60 to 90 days. These will be “Other transactions” contracts for laboratory prototype testing. As part of the OT awards, companies and the government agree to invest in the project.

Bidders must show “credible manufacturing, regulatory and licensing pathways to prototype development within three to five years and a follow-up path to flight testing.”

NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are currently funding the development of fission-based propulsion and energy, such as nuclear thermal propulsion technology.

DIU says it is not duplicating existing programs but seeks to support current government projects with “mature commercial technologies that can provide short-term power and propulsion.”

Another concern is making sure these systems are secure. DIU wants systems that “minimize radiation exposure of ground personnel during spacecraft integration and radiation exposure from surrounding electronic components.”

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