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People Strong - Innovation Driven

Featured: Mission to Mars

Mars – Earth’s next-door neighbor located tens of millions of miles away. For decades, the idea of journeying to the Red Planet has fascinated humanity. From the first flyby missions in the 1960s to present day land rovers roaming the Martian landscape, we’ve collected copious amounts of data, hoping for a day when humans could set foot on its surface.

BWX Technologies, Inc. (BWXT) is working with NASA in an effort to bring a concept once perceived as science fiction to reality.

On Aug. 2, 2017 NASA announced a three-year, $18.8 million dollar contract with the company to support the agency’s Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) project. Under the terms of the deal, BWXT is responsible for initiating conceptual designs for a NTP reactor. The reactor will become part of an NTP rocket engine designed to propel a spacecraft from Earth’s orbit to Mars and back. BWXT’s current contract with the agency is expected to run through 2019.

The NTP project seeks to dramatically decrease travel time to and from Mars, while increasing payload size due to a lighter-sized aircraft. Compared to its chemical counterpart, a nuclear thermal rocket possesses twice the propulsion efficiency due to its high-thrust engine and ability to accelerate propellant at high speeds. Given NTP’s advantages over traditional chemical propulsion systems, NASA estimates the technology will reduce transit to the Red Planet from six months to four.

“NTP is an extraordinarily exciting new program for BWXT. The exploration of space is a noble endeavor, and no one is better qualified to design and build reactors for the remote and challenging environment of space than BWXT.”

- Rex Geveden, BWXT President and CEO

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NTP Overview

BWXT NTP Overview

BWXT's NTP Design (click to enlarge)

BWXT’s interplanetary ventures began in the 1960s, when the company participated as a subcontractor in the U.S. Space Nuclear Program. The doorway into space exploration widened in the early 1980s thanks to a partnership with Brookhaven National Laboratory. Together, the two entities were leading proponents of the Particle Bed Reactor (PBR), a concept developed from BWXT’s previous nuclear propulsion work and evaluated by NASA’s Space Exploration Initiative.

In 1987, BWXT received a contract to design a space nuclear thermal propulsion (SNTP) system in support of the U.S. Department of Defense’s SNTP program. The program sought to develop a lighter and smaller second-generation, PBR-based nuclear rocket. While the program ceased at the end of the Cold War in 1993, the PBR was extensively tested and validated, signaling a giant leap forward in the size reduction of NTP engines.


NASA's Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Overview

Use of NASA content is not an express or implicit endorsement by NASA of the BWXT products or services described herein.

JIMO Mission
Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter
Image Courtesy of NASA


Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter
Image Courtesy of NASA

In the 1990s, BWXT was instrumental in the exploration of other planets, providing power systems and manufacturing capability for the U.S. Department of Energy. One of the more notable missions associated with the initiative was the Cassini-Huygens, a dual-element spacecraft tasked with collecting detailed measurements and images from Saturn. After capturing incredible photographs of the planet’s ring system, Cassini’s 20-year mission officially came to an end, transmitting valuable data back to Earth before disintegrating into Saturn’s atmosphere.

The solar system’s largest planet became the subject of potential exploration in 2003, as BWXT supported development of a reactor plant for the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) under Project Prometheus. Before its cancellation in 2005, the mission sought to utilize nuclear power and propulsion technologies to explore the subsurface oceans of Jupiter’s three ice-covered moons.

Although previous nuclear propulsion concepts relied on high-enriched uranium, BWXT’s latest design utilizes low-enriched uranium-based fuel. In addition to determining the feasibility of using low-enriched fuel, the NTP project will also test and refine the manufacturing of the system’s fuel elements throughout the next year.