NASA researchers studying advanced nuclear rocket technologies

Jan 10, 2013 by Rick Smith
Mike Houts, left, project manager for nuclear systems at the Marshall Center, discusses upcoming testing with Bill Emrich, who manages Marshall's Nuclear Thermal Rocket Element Environmental Simulator, or NTREES. Credit: MSFC/Fred Deaton

(Phys.org)—Advanced propulsion researchers at NASA are a step closer to solving the challenge of safely sending human explorers to Mars and other solar system destinations.

By using an innovative test facility at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., researchers are able to use non-nuclear materials to simulate nuclear thermal rocket fuels—ones capable of propelling bold new exploration missions to the Red Planet and beyond.

The Nuclear Cryogenic Stage team is tackling a three-year project to demonstrate the viability of nuclear technologies. A nuclear rocket engine uses a to heat hydrogen to very , which expands through a nozzle to generate thrust. Nuclear rocket engines generate higher thrust and are more than twice as efficient as conventional chemical .

The team recently used Marshall's Nuclear Thermal Rocket Element Environmental Simulator, or NTREES, to perform realistic, non-nuclear testing of various materials for nuclear thermal rocket fuel elements. In an actual reactor, the fuel elements would contain uranium, but no radioactive materials are used during the NTREES tests. Among the fuel options are a graphite composite and a "cermet" composite—a blend of ceramics and metals. Both materials were investigated in previous NASA and U.S. Department of Energy research efforts.

Amy Sivak, an engineer in the Propulsion Research & Technology Branch of the Marshall Center's Engineering Directorate, keeps an eye on NTREES testing in progress. Credit: MSFC/Emmett Given

Nuclear-powered rocket concepts are not new; the United States conducted studies and significant ground testing from 1955 to 1973 to determine the viability of nuclear propulsion systems, but ceased testing when plans for a crewed Mars mission were deferred.

The NTREES facility is designed to test fuel elements and materials in hot flowing hydrogen, reaching pressures up to 1,000 pounds per square inch and temperatures of nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit—conditions that simulate space-based nuclear propulsion systems to provide critical to the research team.

"This is vital testing, helping us reduce risks and costs associated with advanced propulsion technologies and ensuring excellent performance and results as we progress toward further system development and testing," said Mike Houts, project manager for nuclear systems at Marshall.

A first-generation nuclear cryogenic propulsion system could propel to Mars more efficiently than conventional spacecraft, reducing crews' exposure to harmful space radiation and other effects of long-term space missions. It could also transport heavy cargo and science payloads. Further development and use of a first-generation nuclear system could also provide the foundation for developing extremely advanced propulsion technologies and systems in the future—ones that could take human crews even farther into the solar system.

A glimpse of NTREES testing in progress in mid-2012, as a non-nuclear fuel element is heated to more than 3,200 degrees Fahrenheit while hydrogen is funneled through it. Credit: MSFC/Emmett Given

Building on previous, successful research and using the NTREES facility, NASA can safely and thoroughly test simulated nuclear fuel elements of various sizes, providing important test data to support the design of a future Nuclear Cryogenic Propulsion Stage. A nuclear cryogenic upper stage—its liquid-hydrogen propellant chilled to super-cold temperatures for launch—would be designed to be safe during all mission phases and would not be started until the spacecraft had reached a safe orbit and was ready to begin its journey to a distant destination. Prior to startup in a safe orbit, the nuclear system would be cold, with no fission products generated from nuclear operations, and with radiation below significant levels.

"The information we gain using this test facility will permit engineers to design rugged, efficient fuel elements and nuclear propulsion systems," said NASA researcher Bill Emrich, who manages the NTREES facility at Marshall. "It's our hope that it will enable us to develop a reliable, cost-effective nuclear in the not-too-distant future."

The Nuclear Cryogenic Propulsion Stage project is part of the Advanced Exploration Systems program, which is managed by NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and includes participation by the U.S. Department of Energy. The program, which focuses on crew safety and mission operations in deep space, seeks to pioneer new approaches for rapidly developing prototype systems, demonstrating key capabilities and validating operational concepts for future vehicle development and human missions beyond Earth orbit.

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User comments : 17

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JustChris
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 10, 2013
FYI:
1000 psi = 6 894.757 kPa
5000 F = 2760 degC
Modernmystic
3 / 5 (4) Jan 10, 2013
This is fairly old tech. and it'll never be used in practice under the current political climate.

It's good to continue the work though so that future generations who aren't so paranoid might benefit from drastically reduced costs and improved efficiency with space travel.
dschlink
4.5 / 5 (2) Jan 10, 2013
Gee, up for at least 3 hours and no "cold fusion" comments.
Have to agree with MM, until they can demonstrate something that has no radioactive materials in it at launch, this isn't an option for the USA. China, on the other hand, will probably embrace the technology.
aaronvan
4.8 / 5 (4) Jan 10, 2013
If we are going to get serious about pushing out into the solar system we need a viable nuclear thermal rocket. Thus, I began a White House petition to develop and deploy a NTR. It's getting some traction.

wh.gov/UVuD

JustAnyone
4.5 / 5 (4) Jan 10, 2013
Nuclear rocket? How about 1947's 'Rocket Ship Galileo' (Robert Heinlein's first book). Some backyard know-how plus a hot Thorium-based heating chamber and boiling/high-pressure Zinc as reaction mass. Plus, it's a great story - it even has Moon Nazis! http://en.wikiped..._Galileo
antialias_physorg
4.2 / 5 (5) Jan 10, 2013
and it'll never be used in practice under the current political climate.

Might have to wait for the nuclear rocket until we get fusion to work. I think no one would be overly concerned about lifting off with a couple of tanks full of deuterium.
Sonhouse
5 / 5 (5) Jan 10, 2013
The latest news about astronauts getting more damage to their brains on long trips, say to Mars and beyond makes it all the more imperative to develop nuclear propulsion. Or ion motors with nuclear reactors at least. We need to be able to get to Mars in a few weeks not months to minimize potential brain damage to future astranauts.
aaronvan
5 / 5 (2) Jan 10, 2013
The Russians recently completed a simulated Martian voyage in an isolation chamber and the subjects all had psychological issues. Travel times to Mars and beyond will be simply too long with ordinary chemical rockets, especially with the cramped, compact units the astronauts will be living in. No spacious accomodation like we saw in "2001."
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.5 / 5 (6) Jan 10, 2013
This is fairly old tech. and it'll never be used in practice under the current political climate.
Try a little research sometimes MM

"Anatolij Perminov, head of Russian Space Agency announced that RKA is going to develop a nuclear powered spacecraft for deep space travel. Design will be done by 2012, and 9 more years for development (in space assembly)."

-This WILL get done.
baudrunner
3 / 5 (4) Jan 10, 2013
Is the nuclear rocket really better than the plasma ion thruster? I think that continued research should be done to improve the variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket engine to get the maximum possible specific impulse, ideally so that we can have 1G of constant acceleration (hey, a guy can dream, and that's not so much). The thing about ion engines is that they can continue thrusting for tens of thousands of hours. An interplanetary spacecraft accelerating then decelerating constantly at 1G can get to Mars in less than 2 days, or achieve 99.9% of light speed in about a year. Think about it.
astro_optics
not rated yet Jan 11, 2013
Q: why hydrogen?
Osiris1
1 / 5 (1) Jan 11, 2013
Chinese already have something better by far... antigravity tech. Take a look at the structures being built by China in its Khashgari Desert. Find them in Wired Magazine. Notice large hangar building with NO runway being built to it in one foto. And in another post there are strange looking 'airfields' being built with small figure eight shaped craft parked haphazardly around that do not look like THEY need any runway either.
Yes and if the Chinese want, they can have and launch earth to orbit in single stage nuclear rockets any time they want. They have a ready answer for skeptic type saboteurs and for disruptors and hooligans who would dare to sue or demonstrate. It was once called Tian An Men!
antialias_physorg
3.5 / 5 (4) Jan 11, 2013
Notice large hangar building with NO runway being built to it in one foto.

Geez. Could it be a blimp or a zeppelin?

But noooo..must be antigrav tech. Because the most idiotic sounding explanation is always the right one.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (5) Jan 11, 2013
Zeppelins are antigravity tech. Nazis used them until they found something better
http://www.youtub...k7Sn_cwk

-Then there are whitley streibers black triangles based on this nazi glocke technology
http://www.unknow...le%20UFO
http://www.youtub...UPIHyM44

-The Chinese are only trying to catch up as usual. This is understandable.
Jo01
3 / 5 (2) Jan 12, 2013
The latest news about astronauts getting more damage to their brains on long trips, say to Mars and beyond makes it all the more imperative to develop nuclear propulsion. Or ion motors with nuclear reactors at least. We need to be able to get to Mars in a few weeks not months to minimize potential brain damage to future astranauts.


This isn't a problem at all. The Earth magnetic field can be simulated, especially if a lot of power is available from a nuclear generator.

J.
GSwift7
not rated yet Jan 12, 2013
It's good to continue the work though so that future generations who aren't so paranoid might benefit


I actually think we are getting to the point where people are comforable enough with it that we will be able to do it once the testing and design is ready.

Even Greenpeace has backed way down on its anti-nuke stance (they started as an anti-nuclear weapon group). They don't spend hardly any of their money fighting nuclear power any more.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2013
It would be optimal if we could mine the fuel for these nuclear drives off-world.

I think no one has any reservations about using nuclear drives/nuclear power in space or in basically lifeless environments (Moon, Mars, asteroid mining operations, etc. ) where contamination isn't an issue. Wouldn't want them in Earth orbit, though (but that's just my opinion)

Even Greenpeace has backed way down on its anti-nuke stance (they started as an anti-nuclear weapon group)

They first and foremost were an anti-nuclear testing group. Seeing as there are no more nuclear tests (with the exception of Pakistani, Indian and - maybe - the North Korean ones as well as ongoing US 'subcritical' tests) that media-visible angle has been dropped.

You always have to distinguish what they are doing and what the media is actually showing. There's a lot of stuff going on on a small scale that never makes the (international) news.

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