NASA, Roscosmos to discuss nuclear powered rocketry

April 6, 2011 by Bob Yirka, report

( -- Anatoly Perminov, director of the Russian Space agency Roscosmos, has announced plans for an upcoming meeting between the Russian space agency, and it’s counterparts in the United States, France, Germany and Japan (countries with a high level of nuclear engineering capability) on April 15. The meeting is being held to discuss the possibility of cooperation between the nations in building a nuclear powered rocket.

Cooperation between the Russians and the United States in space exploration, is nothing new of course, dating back to the 1970’s and the Apollo-Soyuz missions, and more recently with astronauts from the U.S. and many other nations riding up to the space station on Russian rockets. What is new is the possibility of not just a rocket powered by nuclear energy, but a joint international project based on a technology that causes people from most any country to feel a little fear. The idea of a nuclear powered rocket exploding in the air shortly after takeoff (Challenger) or burning up upon reentry (Columbia) and spreading radioactive material over thousands of miles below is an issue that won’t go away any time soon.

This would not be the first time that a spacecraft has employed the use of nuclear power (Soviet Topaz spy satellites, etc.) but it would be the first time an actual nuclear reactor would be installed onto a rocket and sent into space.

Perminov, in his announcement, reiterated that has been working on nuclear powered rocket designs for quite some time and is now ready to move forward on developing an actual rocket, though there seems to be some discrepancies regarding the type of engine the agency has in mind. In earlier reports, it seemed the Russians were considering a reactor heat engine, but of late seem to be more of a mind to use the reactor to produce electricity to drive an ion or plasma type engine.

The idea of using nuclear power to drive a rocket is not unique to the Russians, and likely other space agencies have been working on their own designs for a nuclear powered rocket, as most in the field agree that chemical based engines just won’t work for long range space exploration. The sheer weight of the fuel along with the huge amount of cargo required to hold it, prevent any serious thought of very long missions. Nuclear power on the other hand would require far less of both, plus it would require fewer moving parts.

At this point, though not stated specifically, it appears the only thing holding back the Russians is the money to pay for their project, with current estimates at or near $600 million; and it’s the likely reason that the Russians are looking to form a consortium. Whether the United States or any of the other invited guests is willing to sign on to such a partnership though, is anyone’s guess.

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3 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2011
X-Rocket? 100,000+ payload 1/5 the cost
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
X-Rocket? 100,000+ payload 1/5 the cost

So lets not investigate new technology? we NEED nuclear rockets if we ever want to go to mars
4.2 / 5 (5) Apr 06, 2011
"NERVA would give us the Solar System". - Jerry Pournelle.

US/USSR should have discussed Atomic Rockets when they agreed to ban above ground nuclear testing. Perhaps we'd be mining asteroids today.
1.7 / 5 (6) Apr 06, 2011
Roscosmos has the will and the technology to fly nuclear rockets, but lacks money.

NASA has the money, but lacks the will and technology due to ecoterrorism and general stupidity.

Partnership is an obvious way to get it done. :)
2.5 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2011
3.3 / 5 (3) Apr 06, 2011
Sounds like Project Orion. Definitely check out project Orion, which was basically a plan for nuclear powered space battleships in the 1960s. Quite an interesting read.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2011
Voyager 1 and 2 both uses plutonium oxide as a power source.
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
@Ereneon: it has NOTHING to do with Project Orion, which was a Nuclear PULSE PROPULSION system.

Your comparassion is like saying a peeble bed nuclear reactor sounds like an H-Bomb.
4.5 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2011
I know it's not actually the same thing as project Orion, but it has many of the same issues (launching a large amount of nuclear material through the atmosphere). Personally, I think project Orion made a lot of sense for things like interplanetary travel, but only if you could do the launches on the moon or something so you wouldn't have to set off a bunch of nuclear explosions in the atmosphere...

I had never heard of Santa Susanna Field Laboratory, so I looked it up. What an environmental and health disaster that place was! Burning radioactive material and metallic sodium in an open pit... Strange I had never heard of it.
2.4 / 5 (5) Apr 06, 2011
Glad to hear it. Hopefully they'll come up with some way to go forward, and a "safe" launch site.

ESA's Electronic Solar Sail is actually theoretically one of the most efficient propulsion systems I've ever seen, at least for simply exploring our own solar system with "one way probes" and orbiters and stuff like that.

But for moving real cargo and people between planets in a timely manner, I agree Nuclear is the most prudent.

This would allow much, much faster travel times, and therefore you need much less food, water, air, and recycling on board, thus further lowering the payload mass. It just makes the whole thing much easier, because if you cut your fuel mass exponentially, and you multiply your flight speed linearly, then you cut your food, water, and air mass linearly, so then you need linearly less fuel. It would probably cut the cost of a Mars trip by as much as 90%.

In the long term, it would allow much larger payloads, such as colony ships or factories in space...
1 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2011
In other words, for human space flight, nuclear is actually better than chemical by a factor determined as followed:

Exponent * (Linear to the 1.5 power)
5 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2011
Anytime i see an article here about Nuclear Propulsion, I am always waiting to see if anyone will bring up Project Orion. Its unfortunate that they pulled the plug on it, we would've likely been well outta the solar system by now. Hopefully someday soon, they will cut through the red tape and someone will spend some freaking money on this stuff!
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
Santa Susanna Field Laboratory in southern California (site of an uncontained nuclear meltdown worse than Three Mile Island, and kept secret for years).

I actually pass this facility on my way to work everyday. It has a handful of reactors including the first to ever power a city.
3.5 / 5 (8) Apr 06, 2011
yay - lets make some more radioactive stuff = insanity

Well, think about it...

The Fukushima plant has melted down, but only after a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Even still, so far NOT ONE PERSON has been killed due to the nuclear material or anything associated with it. There were two people at the site killed by the tsunami.

From that perspective, the Fukushima plant may actually have been the safest place to be during the quake and tsunami.

Think of that, zero people died as a result of the nuclear or anything associated with it.

Lots of people die in automobile accidents or doing mundane things all the time.
4.5 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2011
The Fukushima plant has melted down, but only after a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Even still, so far NOT ONE PERSON has been killed due to the nuclear material or anything associated with it. There were two people at the site killed by the tsunami.

I was thinking about this recently as well and comparing it to the dangers faced by the oil field workers. A quick search shows 404 deaths from 2003-2006 per the CDC which is roughly 2 per week. Granted more people are employed in oil and gas but its something to think about.
3 / 5 (6) Apr 06, 2011
yay - lets make some more radioactive stuff = insanity

get out
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
Watch, we won't do anything about this. This could be the next step in space exploration, but we'll be too cheap to do anything about it. In the meantime, we're spending $300,000 a minute on "police actions." Thirty three hours of that would cover the entire cost of this ship.
3 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2011
so far NOT ONE PERSON has been killed due to the nuclear material or anything associated with it.
Uh-huh. Nobody died in the explosions? Or was it nobody that we've been told about? And remind us, how many square miles of prime real estate and business assets have just been rendered uninhabitable and unusable for the next, oh, century or more? What's the price tag up to now?

I guess one good thing will come of it: just like the Chernobyl exclusion zone has become Europe's largest natural reserve, so it seems will the Fukushima exclusion zone become Japan's.
4 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2011
Well, it took the Russians to set the international precedent for overflight with Sputnik, so seems fair they should lead the way by launching a new reactor. Hopefully this one will be safer than their spysat which burned up over Canada and contaminated a swathe of countryside...

IIRC, NERVA was developed to a viable, interplanetary design and ground run successfully, with scant 'fallout'. Of course, shielding the crew from it would take some careful work.
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 06, 2011
Thousands of people die every year in the US because of coal plants emmisions (including radioactive particles). But that is not EVIL NUCLEAR, so who cares? :(

Even with Chernobyl, three mile island and Fukushima, nuclear is still the safest power source we have.


5 / 5 (3) Apr 07, 2011
I actually wrote an entire paper on why Nuclear Power is the best, and currently only viable, ready power source that can provide cheap, and practically unlimited power indefinitely. This was my submission for the 11th grade research paper we had to do in English class. My teacher was worried it had problems with it....and it got a 3/4, which is basically "passing with flying colors."

During the course of my research I studied everything. Opposing arguments, favorable arguments, scientific papers, facts and figures, etc. What I found basically convinced me that the general public is ignorant and stupid for harboring irrational fears of nuclear power. It is literally our salvation. It is not only a bridge to nuclear fusion, but a viable power source in it's own right.

5 / 5 (3) Apr 07, 2011
Just to sum it up: Chernobyl was the only incident which ever resulted in any serious damage or actual deaths. For all the talk you hear of 3-mile island, it was successfully contained and no damage occurred to the surrounding area. Of course there was monetary costs related to the damage...but that's to be expected. Further, Fukushima is a prime example of WHY nuclear is safer than any other alternative. Can you imagine the destruction if it were a fossil-fuel powered plant? Can you imagine the potential for uncontrollable fires, explosions, and toxins released into the surrounding area?

The safety record for the nuclear industry is impeccable. It's a laughable assertion that nuclear is not safe, because for more than half a century it has proven to be a shining example of safety. "But what about the potential for a catastrophic explosion." So what? It's never happened before and the reactors don't even work that way.
5 / 5 (3) Apr 07, 2011
The fact is, Chernobyl is the only incident worth noting. And when speaking of Chernobyl, you need to understand that not only did it not have a containment structure or many other features that are found in any decently built, safety-minded plant (even as far back as the first reactors), but the plant-operators PURPOSELY ran the reactor past it's safe operating limits.

It's a case of human negligence, and improper reactor design. Both of these are non-issues in American (or any modern) designs. As safe as the reactors currently in use are (which are already decades old) the most cutting-edge designs are essentially idiot and accident proof.

The question is not "is nuclear safe? Is it viable" the question is enviro-terrorists sabotaging every effort to move forward and achieve real energy independence. This has never been about safety, and always about control. We need to build new reactors, and pursue the technology. It is the way forward.
5 / 5 (2) Apr 07, 2011
And oh btw, final two nails in the coffin, for all the hype about Fukushima, a grand total of HALF AN INCH of steel was melted in the containment structure around the reactor. For perspective, the containment structure is (I believe) a foot of solid steel surrounded by several feet of concrete.

Does that sound like any serious threat to the surrounding area? No. They have things under control, even after getting hit by a catastrophic force of nature. That's more than can be said for other types of power plants under such circumstances.

Also, consider that countries like France (which are otherwise very leftist) have been slowly but surely amassing nuclear power plants so that, in the last half a century, they have come to the point where more than 70 percent of their energy is provided by nuclear power. How often do you hear of the French having problems with their reactors?

The rest of the world is pursuing nuclear and moving forward. Only America is actively sabotaging itself.
not rated yet Apr 07, 2011
Is the propulsion basically NERVA?
1 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2011
I would also like to know what exactly do Russians mean. Is it nuclear thermal or nuclear electric propulsion? Or something else?
4 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2011
Nuclear reaction releases a million times more energy than chemical reactions. However, I think the cooperation between the nations should be in building an aneutronic fusion-powered rocket instead of fission-powered. It will be much safer, without neutron emissions, without radiation damage to the crew inside the spacecraft.
not rated yet Apr 07, 2011
Though there is a plan (Mars Direct by R. Zubrin)for us to go to Mars right now using chemical rockets and 1970s technology, a better propulsion system has been long overdue.
The single most important thing we can do for humanity's future is manned space exploration, and I wish we would finally get started.
not rated yet Apr 10, 2011
New propulsion technology that doesn't use ancient chemical
propulsion is long overdue.

When mankind can solve the anti-gravity problem then we will
really see a space exploration and colonization push.

Until, then we will continue to use Chinese/German fireworks
technology for expensive limited space exploration.

Today's technology from Space-X and rest of field is too
mundane to even waste time following.

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