U.S. Military to Send Fusion Reactor Into Space Within Five Years

The U.S. government wants to send a tiny nuclear fusion reactor into space, and it has partnered with a private company to get a prototype operational by 2027.

Nuclear fusion is an area of physics that scientists have pored over for years as it promises to provide one of the cleanest and most efficient forms of energy possible. Nuclear fusion is when two atomic nuclei merge into one single heavier nucleus, converting some mass into energy.

It's the same process that powers the sun, where hydrogen atoms are forced together under enormous heat and pressure to form helium.

Recreating this process artificially has proven to be a hugely tricky task. Various elaborate machines have been built that attempt to mimic the conditions at the heart of our sun, from donut-shaped tokamaks that use enormous magnets to contain the reaction, to a giant gun that fires projectiles together. Despite decades of work, nothing have proved advanced enough to be built into a power grid.

Ion thruster
A file illustration depicts a spacecraft with an ion thruster. Such electrically powered spacecraft could be enabled by nuclear reactors. Love Employee/Getty

Avalanche Energy thinks it has the answer with a relatively tiny reactor called the Orbitron. It works by trapping high-speed ions in a tiny orbit around a negatively charged electrode. By creating a tiny space for this ion plasma—called an ion trap—the engineers behind the Orbitron hope they will provide plenty of chances for them to cross paths and fuse.

"The smaller it is, the higher the frequency of those orbits are, so the more collisions you get," Robin Langtry, CEO of Avalanche, told Newsweek. "So for us, it almost wants to be small."

The voltages required will be huge, and that's among the many engineering challenges the Avalanche team will have to overcome. If they can, the potential uses for a small reactor could be a game changer.

"That gets you into this idea of a cell; a fusion cell, if you will," Langtry said. Eventually the team think these cells could be combined together to form a larger fusion battery capable of a megawatt of energy output.

This suggests a whole host of potential applications. "As we bring the price down more and more markets for something like this are going to open up," Langtry said. "We'll start with a million dollars per kilowatt hour, I guess, because that's where commercial space solar appears to be. Once we get down to $100,000 per kilowatt, there's probably more applications that open up there; aviation is an interesting one, drones, whatever. And then as you get down to $10,000 or $3,000 per kilowatt you start to become competitive with other forms of terrestrial energy, like fuel cells and batteries and stuff."

One application could be powering spacecraft. In May this year, the U.S. military's Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) announced it had awarded contracts to nuclear technology companies in the search for "next-generation nuclear propulsion and power." Avalanche was one such company.

The aim of the contracts is to get a successful prototype demonstration into Earth orbit by 2027. The nuclear power sources aboard the spacecraft will provide it with the electricity it needs to function as well as power an electric thruster.

"Bottom line, chemical and solar-based systems won't provide the power needed for future DoD missions," Maj Weed, program manager for the Nuclear Advanced Propulsion and Power (NAPP) program at DIU, said in a press release.

Path to 2027 Launch Date

Avalanche Energy's prototype is still a long way off and is currently operating at around 100 kilovolts, a little short of the 190-kilovolt record that has been achieved by similar technology in the past. Soon, they hope to triple this to 300 by using a similar development approach to SpaceX—test, fail, fix.

"We're trying to do that for fusion, trying to basically build some minimum viable thing, run it to its limit, figure out what's stopping you from going farther, fix it, put it back on the test stand and just kind of iterate every day, every week as we go," said Langtry.

"It's early times, but there's definitely a credible path to a 2027 launch date. It's not going to be easy; it's going to be very hard.

"We have three things we want to do with Avalanche. One of them is 100 percent carbon-free energy independence for every country on earth; we want to accelerate the advent of a spacefaring human society; and we want to make science fiction real. I'm super excited to do it."

Correction, 7/5/22, 11:48 a.m. EDT: This article has been corrected to change "commercial solar" to "commercial space solar" in paragraph nine and "dependence" to "independence" in paragraph 16.