BWX Technologies announced that its BWXT Nuclear Energy, Inc. subsidiary has been awarded an $18.8 million contract from NASA to initiate conceptual designs for a nuclear thermal propulsion reactor in support of a possible future manned mission to Mars.
The scope of the contract includes initial reactor conceptual design, initial fuel and core fabrication development, licensing support for initial ground testing, and engine test program development. Work under the contract is expected to continue through 2019, subject to annual Congressional appropriations and options exercised at customer discretion.
The reactor would be part of a nuclear thermal propulsion 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. Nuclear thermal power for spaceflight has a number of advantages over chemical-based designs, primarily providing higher efficiency and greater power density resulting in lower propulsion system weight. This would contribute to shorter travel times and lower exposure to cosmic radiation for astronauts.
“BWXT is extremely pleased to be working with NASA on this exciting nuclear space program in support of the Mars mission,” said Rex D. Geveden, BWXT’s President and Chief Executive Officer. “We are uniquely qualified to design, develop and manufacture the reactor and fuel for a nuclear-powered spacecraft. This is an opportune time to pivot our capabilities into the space market where we see long-term growth opportunities in nuclear propulsion and nuclear surface power.”
Work on the program will begin immediately. Approximately 15 BWXT employees in Lynchburg, Va., will contribute to this effort.