On January 17, U.S. Space Force officials issued an advanced research announcement seeking new ideas in space nuclear power generation for propulsion and sensors aboard small satellites.

This request for advanced research will support the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicle Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M in its Joint Emergent Technology Supplying On-Orbit Nuclear power (“JETSON”) Low Power Mission Application project. JETSON is part of the Space Technology Advanced Research - Fast-tracking Innovative Software and Hardware (“STAR-FISH”) initiative, which is intended to develop enabling technologies for space-based radioisotope power systems.

According to the Statement of Objective for the JETSON, space system architectures are undergoing a paradigm shift “from fewer exquisite satellite solutions to highly proliferated systems of systems design approach to provide persistent and resilient communications, Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Positioning Navigation and Timing (PNT), Space Domain Awareness (SDA), and Space Power capabilities.”

Specifically in the research announcement overview, space officials are looking for new ways to develop compact radioisotope power systems, electric and hybrid propulsion for power conversion, power management, on-orbit mobility, thermal regulation, deployable structures, radiation shielding, and electronic hardening. This effort aims to advance nuclear space power capabilities.

Nuclear and fusion power are the forefront of deep space exploration, as we have extensively discussed, including in previous blogs, in our presentation at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s conference on Nuclear Law, “The State of Nuclear and Fusion Power in Space,” last April, and in Congressional testimony. Fission, radioisotope power, and propulsions systems were also included in the CHIPS and Science Act, passed into law last August, which we also blogged about. Nuclear related technologies can differ immensely—with fission, fusion, and radioisotope-based systems varying greatly, but they promise to open door to a whole new world of space exploration, including for reliable power needs, longer timeframes and longer distances, critical for space exploration and colonization.