October 5, 2020

AMA Completes Prominent Study for NASA

In August 2020, Analytical Mechanics Associates (AMA) completed an eleven-month study for NASA to develop concepts for a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) flight demonstration from an industry perspective. The NTP engine would be designed, built, integrated, and launched with the first engine hot fire test performed in-space.

The value of NTP propulsion is high-efficiency and high-thrust, with a specific impulse roughly double the highest performing chemical propulsion systems and thrust levels that can be easily scaled to the needs of human Mars missions. This enables reduced trip times to Mars for a crewed mission, reducing crew exposure to space radiation, microgravity, and other hazards. NTP also enables a broader launch window and abort modes not available with other architectures, including the ability to return to Earth immediately upon arrival to Mars or anytime within three months of Earth departure.

When NASA decided to couple industry inputs with its own internal studies, AMA was specifically invited to lead the industry-based study—independent of NASA—that would involve several companies and crosscut a variety of engineering capabilities.

The study was led by John Abrams, Vice President of Advanced Projects, out of AMA’s Denver office.  It was supported by dozens of AMA employees across the country, namely from AMA’s Denver, Huntsville, and Hampton offices. Importantly, AMA was supported by seven industry partners who conceived of nine reactor concepts, interfacing with six engine designs, and hosted on four different types of spacecraft with varying missions. All concepts were shown to meet mission and test objectives for a flight demonstration.

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One NTP flight demonstrator concept (foreground), extensible to NTP enabled stages for a human Mars mission (background).

Lindsey Holmes, AMA project lead for NTP, says she believes AMA was chosen because the company has established itself with a strong reputation for engineering services, particularly in its multidisciplinary systems engineering approach.  “AMA has been supporting NASA for four years in its investigation of NTP through technical analysis assessing nuclear fuels, cryogenic fluid management systems, nuclear engine ground testing concepts and locations, and cost, schedule and risk assessments,” says Holmes.

“Fostering the development of collaborative teams within industry at a design concept stage is critical to innovate solutions,” says Anthony Calomino, NASA’s Space Nuclear Technologies Portfolio Manager. “AMA’s gained knowledge of nuclear technology and its systems engineering experience uniquely qualified them to manage the industry design study.”

NASA’s high-level NTP mission objectives for a flight demonstration are to substantiate an NTP capability, demonstrate the regulatory processes, and mature the NTP technologies. Several reactor designs will be investigated moving forward as NASA continues the development of advanced propulsion technologies. AMA is excited to be play a role in this game changing project and looks forward to continued involvement advancing the science and technology required to get humans to Mars.