National Nuclear Security Administration

NNSA innovation fuels space exploration

July 20, 2016

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The Curiosity rover, sporting Los Alamos’ ChemCam, examines the Kimberley formation in Gale crater on Mars.

Today, in accordance with a 1971 Presidential proclamation, the United States commemorates the first human setting foot on the moon. As a science agency, NNSA’s technology and development have given rise to extraterrestrial innovation and enabled other-worldly achievements. From building the hardware that help scientists reach outer space to modeling the physics that both explain and make space exploration possible, NNSA’s labs and sites are at the forefront of American space ingenuity.

LANL's robotic thinking telescope system, RAPTOR. Technology created by NNSA labs and scientists is frequently deployed and used from space, including nuclear detonation detection sensors and other space-based nonproliferation technology. NNSA lab researchers investigate sensing solutions to address a wide range of complex national security issues in space, including “patrolling traffic” of objects orbiting earth to keep them from colliding with each other, and the ChemCam instrument package currently exploring Mars.

Capabilities at NNSA’s labs that were created to support NNSA’s stockpile stewardship and nonproliferation missions are ideal for testing spacecraft materials against the harsh environments endured during space travel. Highlights of these efforts include:

  • NNSA engineers at Los Alamos National Laboratory work to power space missions with travel-size nuclear reactors.
  • Sandia National Laboratories engineers work through space concepts from a nuclear powered moon base and satellite propulsion to polymer films for space telescope mirrors.
  • NNSA’s Y-12 National Security Campus helps create fuel for NASA’s long-range space exploration missions, while Los Alamos lab helps chemically process and package the fuel.
  • NNSA’s Savannah River Site produced the plutonium used to power NASA’s Pluto flyby probe. More than 27 space missions have used plutonium-driven power sources, including 10 in Earth orbits, five moon missions, three Mars missions and nine planetary missions.

Among some of the most exciting work conducted at NNSA’s laboratories is for planetary defense – detecting, tracking, and planning deflection missions for asteroids that might collide with Earth. All of NNSA’s labs participate in the planetary defense effort.

Learn more about the work NNSA does to advance study of outer space at the space-focused web pages for Sandia, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Livermore national labs.