Updates to Space Nuclear Policy

Many are familiar with searching for available charging outlets in an airport during a busy layover. In space, finding abundant electric power in space is just as difficult.

The International Space Station, with 27,000 square feet of solar paneling (more than half the area of a football field), generates a maximum of 120 kilowatts. While enough to power 40 homes on Earth, it falls short of the 500+ kilowatts required for on-orbit manufacturing, space resource mining, and, most importantly, electric propulsion with high efficiency and high thrust. Generating 1 megawatt with hardware the size of a refrigerator, therefore, revolutionizes what’s possible beyond Earth’s atmosphere. On August 20, 2019, following a meeting of the National Space Council, the White House released the Presidential Memorandum on Launch of Spacecraft Containing Space Nuclear Systems. This policy, the culmination of a year of advocacy by Atomos Space, created a new pathway for government and commercial launches of space nuclear technology and sets the stage for an incredible future.

Nuclear technology is already in space. Over the decades, NASA launched more than thirty payloads with nuclear power systems (NPS), seeking approval for each mission through a process that took years and cost tens of millions of dollars. The release last week, however, rewrote the few existing paragraphs of regulation and created the first defined process by which government and commercial entities launch an NPS. By removing a mandatory Presidential approval for all but the most sensitive launches, defining clear probabilistic risk criteria, and expanding the Department of Transportation’s (DoT’s) successful authority with commercial launch to include nuclear, the Nuclear Space Age has begun.

Existing policy lacked specific metrics, making it difficult to engineer toward explicit safety goals, and safety reviews forced redundant, costly analyses even when previous missions used identical technology. The nebulous journey to approval limited nuclear development to government programs with the capital and endurance to see it through. When Atomos Space formed in 2017, we understood that regulation required more clarity. For a sustained nuclear-powered space economy, safety is critical; while previous, open-ended safety requirements became expensive and unpredictable, prescriptive, designed-focused safety becomes limiting. If we had to build certain safety mechanisms into the system, it could restrict how the system is used. More importantly, updates in regulatory design requirements could force expensive engineering changes or threaten compliance late in the development process. A flexible safety framework required a risk-based approach. We proactively promoted change by speaking on panels, giving presentations, talking with congressional members, and traveling to D.C. to speak with regulators and industry partners. We shared specific recommendations for metrics, the pros and cons of various agencies who could oversee approval, and the challenges with using expensive facilities for safety testing. With various Space Policy Directives, the increase in public-private partnerships for space technology, and the reactivation of U.S. Space Command, the opportunity for innovations in space to have national influence has never been higher.

Atomos Space’s Policy Recommendations

This new memorandum is indicative of the U.S. government’s shifting perspective on space nuclear technologies. The explicit inclusion of commercial licensing processes demonstrates that the U.S. government is not merely willing allowing commercial nuclear space missions: it is attempting to encourage them. With a new tiered approval process, the U.S. government establishes global leadership in space nuclear development by incentivizing safe practices and technologies. The released memo, which creates a clear divide between Tier II and Tier III, with the latter requiring Presidential authorization, demonstrates the governments growing preference for commercial operators to use low enriched uranium (LEU) systems, such as those Atomos will use.

Safety- and security-based tiers for process approval

Like Atomos, the U.S. government benefits from space nuclear technologies — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has endorsed greater use of nuclear power and propulsion technologies — and while the U.S. government has the capability to develop space nuclear systems, there is obvious interest in working with commercial entities. The government invested nearly $15B (USD) in companies such as SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corporation, United Launch Alliance, and Orbital ATK for NASA Commercial Crew and Cargo and allocated billions more for commercial procurement contracts for lunar landers, rovers, and logistics services to the Deep Space Gateway. The activity comes from the lower cost and risk profiles yielded from public-private partnerships. As such, Atomos sees tremendous support potential working with the NASA and various defense agencies in development of this vital technology.

The Presidential Memorandum is an incredible move forward for Atomos Space, and we have begun accelerating development of our nuclear electric system. Atomos always viewed the eventuality of nuclear technology our largest advantage, but the unpredictability of previous regulation required a careful approach. With the latest political development, however, Atomos believes it’s time to push ahead. Space is a highly regulated industry, but when navigated correctly, these regulations provide advantages, and Atomos will continue to advocate for the vital infrastructure that we provide this new frontier.

[1] National Security Council Presidential Directive 25 (NSC/PD-25) and National Space Policy of the United States of America, 2010.