WASHINGTON — The Department of Defense is looking to industry for nuclear-powered propulsion technology to drive its spacecraft, freeing them from the low-energy limitations of current electric and solar-based propulsion systems.
Those traditional systems have largely served government space systems well. Once they reach their intended orbit, most satellites don’t need to move very much. Propulsion systems are generally used to readjust satellite positions when they drift out of their assigned position or to avoid collisions, while occasionally transporting those satellites to new orbits to continue their mission.
However, future U.S. military missions may require much more maneuverability and power. Future U.S. missions will need more electrical power to more frequently change orbits, transfer other objects to new orbits and operate beyond Earth’s orbit, according to a Sept. 9 solicitation from the Defense Innovation Unit, a DoD organization that helps match mature, commercial solutions to military needs.
Moreover, the shrinking size of many space systems driven by the increased capabilities of small satellites and cubesats imposes volume constraints on future propulsion systems. In other words, the military wants more power, but not by simply building bigger propulsion systems or adding more solar panels.
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