Give American satellites a chance against adversaries, pursue safe nuclear propulsion – Breaking Defense Breaking Defense

An artist's illustration of a nuclear powered rocket. (DARPA)

An artist’s illustration of a nuclear powered rocket. (DARPA)

As orbit around Earth becomes increasingly crowded and contested by terrestrial adversaries, this highlights the satellite’s vulnerability to attacks on the ground or in space. In the following article, Christopher Stone of the Mitchell Institute argues that the time has come to upgrade America’s satellite defenses through mobility and longevity by using nuclear propulsion, an idea that much safer than critics argue.

In recent years, China has deployed a variety of offensive anti-satellite weapons US intelligence, to support a military strategy to challenge US dominance in space. They seek to target unobstructed constellations of US satellites locked in highly predictable orbits, essentially turning key space assets into sitting ducks.

American leaders have long sought to maintain space as a domain of peace, but to these actions they must respond with a new generation of satellites that can maneuver for defensive and offensive purposes. labour. Will we ever put a soldier, ship or plane in danger without the ability to maneuver to avoid a threat? Of course not. The same is true in space – and nuclear propulsion gives the agility and longevity satellites will demand in a future conflict.

Today’s satellite constellations are driven by chemical or electrical thrust and are similar to the sluggish airships of the last century. The electric motor, although very efficient, is very slow. Chemical propellants, although very powerful with propulsion, are not fuel efficient and as such offer only limited maneuvering options in dynamic combat areas, such as space.

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Most satellites can use chemical fuel-powered propulsion to maintain the desired orbit, perform limited operations such as adjusting their position to perform a specific mission, or record debt after completing the task. Because of the cost and other challenges associated with launching large volumes into space, satellites typically carry small amounts of chemical propellant. Using this limited stockpile of propellant to avoid rapidly moving threats will reduce the operational life of the satellite, which will soon end its mission life and require replacement. Soon.

On the other hand, space nuclear thermal propulsion (SNTP) is extremely efficient and powerful, which can provide the agility and maneuverability of modern warplanes in space. SNTP systems are not like the nuclear weapons or legacy nuclear power reactors that many of us think of when we hear the term “nuclear”. Instead, SNTP uses fission energy to heat and expand a hydrogen propellant that then flows through a nozzle to generate thrust. This does not involve combustion or a nuclear explosion, but it does mean that they have a long lifespan and can provide quick results when circumstances call for them. Existing push forms cannot match those performance attributes.

This will require new force designs in space utilizing nuclear thermal propulsion (SNTP). While many have understandably cited safety concerns associated with this technology, such as the radiation risk to humans during storage, release or accidental re-entry, the reality is that is a modern development that means these systems can be used responsibly and reliably.

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If a rocket carrying an SNTP engine fails during launch, there is no risk of a radioactive spill. The rocket itself would be powered by a traditional chemical rocket using launch trajectory and results over water or other uninhabited areas. There will be no radiation generated during storage or launch because the system is not activated until the satellite is in orbit. The risk is further reduced by designing the SNTP engine so that nuclear fission chain reactions and potentially fatal events cannot occur.

Once in orbit, the US will only operate SNTP systems in what is known as a “nuclear safe orbit” above 700 miles. This means that satellites powered by SNTP will last in space for several hundred years. This is true even with loss of guidance and control of the spacecraft. In addition, the system only runs for a short period of time. Any radiation released during its active use will radiate out into space, already a radiation-heavy environment due to space weather such as coronal mass ejections.

When the time comes for an SNTP system to re-enter the atmosphere after decades in space, the small amount of radiation it has produced during its lifetime will dissipate considerably. Any material left over after re-entry will not represent a radioactive hazard to human health.

This is in stark contrast to older designs, like the Soviet design Cosmos-954 . Satellite Incident in the late 1970s. This older primitive design crashed into an uninhabited area of ​​Canada and released limited radioactive debris. No one wants that to happen again. Years of advancements in materials, nuclear technology and processes have resulted in systems that are much more secure than older systems.

Furthermore, it must also be acknowledged that today’s satellites, almost all of which are powered by chemical propellants, are not at risk. These materials are extremely toxic and pose major health risks if people come into contact with them in the event of a launch or retest failure. Any form of space propulsion carries a degree of risk, but modern SNTPs are a safe bet thanks to decades of development.

While safety should always drive decision making when it comes to our activities in orbit, it is important to recognize the overarching security concerns. The connection between security and safety is undeniable. Enemy actions require the United States to acquire the ability to send assets into orbit. SNTP is a key technology needed to accomplish that goal. The ceding of initiative in orbit to co-ordinated and determined adversaries like China poses far greater risks.

We have fallen behind in other important military technologies, like hypersonic weapons. We cannot risk other failures. It must also be acknowledged that China also SNTP . engine development to power their military space vehicles, so this technology will be in orbit in the near future whether the US chooses to adopt it or not.

Our military should seize the opportunity to get ahead of its opponents by equipping SNTP-powered spacecraft as soon as possible. The technology has matured, the need is clear. Safety and security can be pursued, and it should be pursued as soon as possible.

Christopher Stone is a Senior Researcher in Space Studies at the Mitchell Institute’s Center for Space Competency. He is also a former Special Assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy in the Pentagon.

https://breakingdefense.com/2022/02/to-give-us-satellites-a-chance-against-rivals-pursue-safe-nuclear-propulsion/ Give American satellites a chance against adversaries, pursue safe nuclear propulsion – Breaking Defense Breaking Defense

Jake Nichol

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