Sandia-designed space reactor could drive in-orbit salvage tug
Roger Lenard and a group of like-minded scientists and engineers at Sandia — notably, Paul Pickard, Ron Lipinski, and Steve Wright, space nuclear power guys — envision and work for a day when human crews explore the solar system on a grand scale. And they’re convinced with a serene certainty that the way to do it — the only viable way to do it (and they have the numbers to make their case) — is via nuclear rocketry.
What these persistent and patient researchers at Sandia (along with other initiates around the space exploration community) have needed and wanted is a way to prove to skeptics that space nuclear power is the practical, safe, reliable, and efficient propulsion system that they know it to be.
Proof in the marketplace
They are about to get their proof in that most critical, demanding, unblinkingly pragmatic arena of them all — the marketplace.
IOSTAR Corp., a long-time Sandia CRADA partner through its parent company, Intraspace Corp., earlier this month made its business case for a nuclear-powered space tug to investors attending the Technology Ventures Corp. Equity Capital Symposium. The power behind the tug would be based on a Sandia-designed, developed, built, and operated gas-cooled reactor driving an ion engine, using inert xenon gas as the propellant.
IOSTAR — the name is an acronym for In Orbit Space Transportation And Recovery — bases its business model on what it estimates to be a $7-billion-a-year market opportunity. IOSTAR projects that it can capture 10 percent of that market in its first year of operation and 30 percent by the tenth year.
Several years ago, it occurred to Intraspace officials that there could be a large market in the satellite recovery business. Each year, in the commercial arena alone, a certain number of launches fail to put satellites in the correct orbit, making them effectively useless for their intended mission, nothing more than multimillion-dollar space junk.
But if, Intraspace reasoned, if you could intercept the stranded satellite — usually stuck in a low earth orbit (LEO) rather than the intended geosynchronous orbit (GEO) — and move it efficiently to the correct orbit . . . if you could do that, insurance carriers would pay good money for the service. The market analysis showed that there was indeed a need for the service. It also discerned a healthy market potential in the new launch business — a conventional chemical rocket would boost a satellite to LEO and a more efficient system would tug it to GEO. The market also lay open for a satellite maintenance and upgrade.
So, sure, there was a market. There’s a market for gold, too. But you can’t make any money if it costs you more to get the gold out of the mountain than you can sell it for on the street.
The story of IOSTAR and Sandia could be a case study for the nexus among entrepreneurialism and technology, vision and engineering, the dreamable and the doable.
Roger Lenard recounts that Intraspace, seeking to make the business case for what was clearly a solid technical concept, came to Sandia asking about using nuclear-powered rocket. A CRADA relationship was established at that time.
In his analysis for Intraspace, which factored in how much an insurance company would be likely to pay for a recovery service, how much mass would need to be moved from LEO to GEO, and how long customers would be willing to wait for their satellites to arrive on station, Roger determined that you’d need a propulsion system with a specific impulse of at least 900 seconds simply to pay for propellant to move the satellite around, given today’s launch costs. (See “Specific impulse defined” below.)
A reactor-based system made sense
Subsequent, more detailed analysis of the challenge, Roger says, pointed more and more toward one inevitable conclusion: the technology that made sense — from a technical and business perspective — was a reactor-based nuclear-electric system.
“For a variety of reasons, primarily having to do with risk and cost, we settled on a system that was a direct gas-cooled reactor; it would directly drive a Brayton cycle conversion system, and that would directly drive a set of ion engines operating at about 4,000 seconds of specific impulse.”
The numbers were good. Sandia demonstrated to Intraspace’s satisfaction that if they were to pursue the space salvage market, nuclear was the way to go; realistically, the only way to go.
Now, with a viable plan in hand and a solid business case, Intraspace needed to raise money. There was a source: a federal loan program that was used to finance the Tracking Data Relay Satellite System. Through four years of effort in Washington, Intraspace helped shepherd legislation through Congress that would provide a $1.5 billion loan for a commercially viable reusable in-space transportation system. In other words, for something that sounds very much like IOSTAR. The legislation was generic — i.e., the loan would be available for such a system; it would be up to Intraspace to demonstrate that its IOSTAR concept met the requirements of the legislation.
(Roger here clarifies the IOSTAR operational model. The reactor-powered system would stay in space and would be replenished with xenon fuel from time to time. Ideally, it would never be idle, but would always be moving stuff around for customers. “You don’t want to make them [the IOSTAR tugs] wait between jobs in a parking orbit,” he says. “You want to follow the Southwest Airlines model: the planes don’t make any money unless they’re in the air — with passengers in them.”)
A rigorous process
It turns out, Roger says, that the federal loan for IOSTAR is available, but the company needs about $15 million to complete a very rigorous, very detailed loan application that requires “an awful lot of knowledge about the system in terms of cost, schedules, risks, market assessments, payback, salvage value — just a wide variety of things.”
Timing happened to be good for the IOSTAR project: legislation just passed in the State of New Mexico allowed direct state investment in businesses with potential long-term beneficial impact on the state’s economy. And the state, under Gov. Bill Richardson’s leadership, has seen the private space business as a growth opportunity for New Mexico. In the meantime, Technology Ventures Corporation got wind of IOSTAR and recognized in it a great potential that perfectly fit the TVC profile.
“TVC decided this was a great project,” Roger says. “It transferred Sandia-developed technology — namely, the gas-cooled reactor; the integrated Brayton cycle, all the models we developed, our shielding, our test facilities, as well as our direct operator capability (for technical and legal reasons, Sandia and DOE would own and operate the actual reactor operation in the IOSTAR model) — to a commercial venture that satisfied a wide, wide range of commercial, military, and, eventually, NASA missions.”
TVC, Roger says, took on Intraspace/IOSTAR as a client, and spent several months working with them, helping them revise some aspects of their financial model to make the enterprise more attractive to the investor community.
And that brought IOSTAR to the Equity Capital Symposium early this month.
If IOSTAR, through its TVC symposium exposure or otherwise, finds its angel (and the state may very well be a partner in any equity investment), Roger says, “it looks like the project could be launched in somewhere between four-and-a-half and five years, everything going according to plan. There are always hiccups here and there, but that looks like a schedule that could be met.”
Epistemologically proper thing
Roger welcomes Sandia’s involvement in IOSTAR as an opportunity to prove the concept he and his colleagues have been working toward.
“Look,” he says, “first off, we ought to be doing it because it’s the right thing to do. You can only do so much exploration with 300 watts of power, solar cells, and 450 seconds of specific impulse. So if you ever want to operate within the solar system cost-effectively and with regularity, you’re going to have to have nuclear power systems. So there is the motivation in the fact that this is the epistemologically proper thing to do. Now having said that, the IOSTAR people aren’t the only ones who have seen the light. NASA has its Prometheus program, which is looking at nuclear electric propulsion and expansions to the radioisotope program and may, the rumor mill has it, may be looking at nuclear thermal-based systems again.
“You know, it seems to me that the important point is that there is a convergence of the fact that there are commercially viable missions and a technological capability here. The time is right.
“All of this is in its infancy and can still founder again, but to the extent that Sandia can bring its technical forces to bear safely in an expedient fashion it seems to me we’ll do that.”