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Russian is hoping its new nuclear rocket will help it reach the Red Planet, Mars, as well as set up a base on the moon. The rocket will likely be a Nuclear Gas Core Reactor (NGCR) fission rocket design.  (Source: RIA Novosti ?????? ?????)

Russia developed an early nuclear fission engine, the RD-0410 NTP Engine, back in the 1960s.  (Source: Dietrich Haeseler)
While the U.S. dreams of plasma, Russia looks to nuclear

With the Space Shuttles on their way to retirement the U.S. is pouring millions into developing the next generation of manned spacecraft, a return to rocket-mounted capsule designs and departure from the space-plane design of the shuttle.  The Ares I-X underwent its first test flight yesterday. 

In the near-term rockets like the Ares and its foreign competitors will likely retain a chemical booster to provide the thrust and impulse needed to propel the rocket into space.  The critical question, though is what to use once in space to provide the sustained power needed to reach distant targets like the Moon or Mars.

Some are advocating traditional chemical rockets to due to the job.  While expensive and potentially dangerous, they have the advantage of being a thoroughly proven technology.  NASA is also eying non-nuclear plasma rockets as a possible solution.

Now, news has broke that Russia may turn to a nuclear fission engine for its own Mars or Moon mission.  Anatoly Perminov, Russian rocket scientist, mechanical engineer, and acting director of the Russian Federal Space Agency announced at a meeting of the commission on the modernization of the Russian economy that the design would be finalized by 2012 and that full development would take approximately 9 years.

The project will cost approximately 17 billion rubles (over $580 million), a lot of money for the cash-strapped Russian space program.  Still, another Russian space official, Anatoly Koroteyev, president of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics and head of the Keldysh research center, says that the new propulsion system is critical to a successful Mars mission as it will provide the high degree of energy-mass efficiency needed for a fast and cost-effective trip.

He says that Russia's current technology cannot accomplish its goals -- to put a space base on the Moon and send a manned mission to the Red Planet, Mars.

While there are many nuclear rocket designs, including antimatter catalyzed nuclear pulse propulsion, Bussard ramjets, fission-fragmentation, and nuclear electric, the new engine is likely a gas core reactor rocket.  Russia has been working on this type of rocket since 1954.  It claims that the U.S., despite heavy university research into nuclear designs, has only completed 1 use of a fission reactor in space, and that it has completed 30 such uses.

The Nuclear Gas Core Reactor (NGCR) uses highly enriched uranium (U-235 or U-233) injected into a gas jet at pressures of up to 1000 atm and temperatures of up to 70000 K.  Hydrogen is used as a propellant as it provides a high specific impulse.  The fissile core is a cylindrical design and energy is delivered to the hydrogen propellant via alkali metal vapors like Li.  Due to the distance between the walls and nozzle and the fission reactions in the core, the rocket can achieve higher temperature fission and thus greater specific impulse than solid-core designs.

A key challenge will be developing the theory to full predict the behavior of and contain the fission plasma via a magnetic field.  Russia has already done a good deal of work into this topic, but many questions remain unaswered, particularly how the field will react to instability from gravity and inertial forces.

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RE: This is a chemical propellant rocket!?
By drycrust on 10/29/2009 12:30:33 PM , Rating: 2
I agree with you. With a gas or liquid based fuel system, no matter how hot you have the propellant, you are still limited to the capacity of the fuel tank and your electricity supply. However, I guess the real point is whether or not the amount of fuel is a significant percentage of the gross weight at the start of the journey. If, say, the amount of fuel needed was the size of a cigarette lighter, then that is a huge advantage over the current systems because you can factor in a huge amount of redundancy without any significant increase in the payload.

RE: This is a chemical propellant rocket!?
By gamerk2 on 10/29/2009 3:18:18 PM , Rating: 2
Agreed. Chemical based systems quickly run into the following: It takes more power to go faster, but to get more power requires more weight (both in holding the chemical solution, as well as tanks, systems, et cetra). So after X point, the weight added to hold more fuel will actually cause a bigger slowdown then more fuel will provide.

Nuclear has its own issues (rocket never makes it to space? Blows up in low earth orbit?), but on a weight/power scale, its way up there.

As for supply, most Uranium mines are in Africa, which is only slightly more stable then the middle east is...

By eddieroolz on 10/30/2009 2:03:22 AM , Rating: 2
We have 'em up here in Canada too, at a low, low price of just $3/lb!

RE: This is a chemical propellant rocket!?
By JediJeb on 10/29/2009 4:06:53 PM , Rating: 2
The big differences are that the hydrogen in a nuclear or ion rocket does not "burn" it is simply heated and exhusted out the back. The nuclear rocket expelles the hydrogen at a much higher velocity which will give it a much better top speed and since it is not used up to provide the energy to create the exhaust it will not need as much for the same trip.

By ArcliteHawaii on 11/3/2009 2:12:21 AM , Rating: 2
I wonder if hydrogen can be collected in space as the ship travels. There must be a certain density of H molecules just hanging out that can be captured and used to replace the spent fuel.

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