NASA Funds Research into Extrasolar Object Interceptor and Sample Return Technology

Artist’s depiction of the Extrasolar Object Interceptor (Credits: Christopher Morrison)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase I Award
Funding: up to $125,000
Study Period: 9 months

Extrasolar Object Interceptor and Sample Return Enabled by Compact, Ultra Power Dense Radioisotope Batteries
Christopher Morrison
Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation – Space (USNC-Space)
Seattle, Wash.


USNC-Tech is proposing a compact 20 kWe, 500 kg dry mass, radioisotope-electric-propulsion spacecraft design powered by a novel Chargeable Atomic Battery (CAB) that is capable of ∆Vs on the order of 100 km/s with a power system specific mass of 5-8 kg/kWe. A spacecraft powered by this technology will be able to catch up to an extrasolar object, collect a sample, and return to earth within a 10-year timeframe.

The data collected from samples and data from interstellar objects has the potential to fundamentally change our view of the universe and our place in it. Two of these objects ‘Oumuamua and C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) have passed through our solar system in the past three years, and we must be ready for the next one.

The core innovation of this spacecraft architecture that makes this amazing mission possible is the CAB, which has a power density of over 30 times that of Pu-238. The CAB is easier and cheaper to manufacture than Pu-238 and the safety case is greatly enhanced by the CAB’s encapsulation of radioactive materials within a robust carbide matrix.

This technology is superior to fission systems for this application because fission systems need a critical mass whereas radioisotope systems can be much smaller and fit on smaller launch systems reducing cost and complexity.

2021 Phase I Selections

About NIAC

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program nurtures visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions with the creation of breakthroughs — radically better or entirely new aerospace concepts — while engaging America’s innovators and entrepreneurs as partners in the journey.

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