Trip to the icy moons

Northrop Grumman and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are to develop a preliminary design for the Prometheus Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, an electric propulsion vehicle powered by a nuclear fission reactor.

Northrop Grumman has won a $400 million contract that will see it partner with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop a preliminary design for the Prometheus Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO), an electric propulsion vehicle powered by a nuclear fission reactor.

The company will develop systems requirements and a preliminary spacecraft design, building on trade studies and a system concept developed under an earlier phase of the program. Following that, the next phase of the contract calls for the full-scale design, fabrication, integration and test of the space system.

JIMO itself would orbit Jupiter’s three ice-covered Galilean moons – Ganymede, Callisto and Europa – gathering data to help scientists understand the moons’ origin and evolution, potential for sustaining life, and radiation environment. These moons are thought to harbour vast oceans beneath their icy surfaces.

The orbiter would have 100 times more usable onboard power than any previous probe, enabling its science instruments to gather more and higher quality data and to send it back to Earth at vastly higher data rates.

The reactor for the craft would be developed by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Naval Reactors, in Washington, DC.

Northrop Grumman’s team is being led by its Space Technology sector and includes its Newport News, Electronic Systems, Integrated Systems and Information Technology sectors along with Hamilton Sunstrand and Alliance Space Systems.

JIMO is expected to launch no earlier than 2015 on its five-to-eight year interplanetary journey.

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