BWXT Nuclear Energy Targets Red Planet For Nuclear Propulsion System

Buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, we are in for a long ride.

MarsThis is the case, as Virginia-based BWX Technologies announced Thursday that its subsidiary BWXT Nuclear Energy Inc. had been awarded an $18.8 million contract from NASA to initiate conceptual designs for a nuclear thermal propulsion reactor. The aim of the project, the company said, was to support “a possible future manned mission to Mars.”

That would be a 54.6 million kilometer journey – 33.9 million miles.

The contract calls for options for the reactor design, including fuel and core fabrication development, as well as licensing support for initial ground testing. It also calls for engine test development. The work is expected to continue through 2019, dependent on continued support from Washington, which covers the bills for the project.

The reactor would be part of a nuclear thermal propulsion rocket engine designed to propel a spacecraft into orbit around Mars and back. The company at this point did not mention anyone making a pit stop on the planet itself.

The company's technology is based on low enriched uranium fuel. This has inherent advantages over other fuels types, the company said, primarily providing higher efficiency and greater power density, which would contribute to lowering propulsion system weight.

Less weight also means “shorter travel times and lower exposure to cosmic radiation for astronauts,” said BWXT.

The work will begin immediately. “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,” said BWXT President and Chief Executive Officer Rex Geveden, a hint that someday a landing party may be in the offing.

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