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Space Science

Nuclear Rockets Moving Along 620

AKAImBatman writes "Bruce Behrhorst of NuclearSpace.com recently stumbled across a new engine from everyone's favorite Jet Engine maker, Pratt & Whitney. Unlike P&W's previous engines, however, this engine is not a jet, and is powered by Nuclear Fission. It seems that P&W has responded to the need for Mars transportation by inventing the first commercially viable nuclear thermal rocket. They have heavily improved upon the NERVA NRX design from the 60's, and have even solved the graphite ablation problem! With this new engine, it seems that an inexpensive trip to Mars is now firmly within our grasp. Will we rise to the challenge?"
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Nuclear Rockets Moving Along

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  • Not quite (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DarkHand ( 608301 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @08:54AM (#10630329)
    Too bad the public fear of anything with the word 'nuclear' in it will grind this project to a halt. :(
    • Re:Not quite (Score:5, Insightful)

      by EvilCowzGoMoo ( 781227 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @08:56AM (#10630349) Journal
      I don't think 'nuclear' alone will ground the rocket. It will however be the scapegoat for any little problem that may arise.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @08:56AM (#10630350)
      It'll just have be renamed to the "Super fun happy propulsion device"
    • Re:Not quite (Score:3, Informative)

      I suspect few people realize we've launched nuclear materials into space on many occasions. IIRC, the Pioneer probes are nuclear-powered.

      Who knows? We may even have had some of those probes fail to launch properly, in which case the nuclear material had no major ill effects. (That I'm aware of, anyway.)
      • Re:Not quite (Score:4, Informative)

        by Rei ( 128717 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @12:23PM (#10632421) Homepage
        There's a huge, huge difference between newly minted RTG generators being launched on a one-way trip, and a nuclear thermal rocket on a two-way trip.

        RTGs are incredibly simple devices; they simply generate heat in an enclosed container. No moving parts are needed. The heat moves across a junction in metals to a radiator; a heat differential across a junction in metals can generate power. The simple design allows most of the work to focus on how to seal the radioactive material so that it does the least damage in the event of an accident (instead of having to focus mainly on how to stop an accident from occurring). Also, the quantity of material used in RTGs is typically far, far lower.

        Nuclear thermal rockets are full pressurized gas reactors. They involve all of the effects of vorticity and other hard to simulate phenomina in an incredibly high pressure/high temperature environment that is hard enough to control in a conventional rocket. Such an environment is worse than it initially sounds, because of several factors: 1) Radiation weakens the crystalline structure of reactor materials, and 2) The chemical composition of the fuel rods is constantly changing. Conventional rockets are already somewhat complex beasts (read about how the SSMEs work, for example); this will make SSMEs look like cheap toys.

        Nuclear reactors are not as safe as most people assume; I recommend people read this as a primer:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nuclear_acc id ents

        An explosion in earth's atmosphere on a return trip (i.e., with lots of decay products) would be the absolute worst kind of nuclear accident physically possible. Even on the initial trip out of the atmosphere, however, it would be a Chazhma-bay level disaster.

        Honestly, I don't want to see the effect that this would have on our still-recovering ground-based nuclear power industry (a much simpler task, and yet one we still have a lot of trouble with). That's my primary concern. People are already scared enough of nuclear power as it is; we don't need a nuclear disaster to occur in as publicly-visible location as "right over everyone's heads". It'd kill the industry.
        • Re:Not quite (Score:4, Insightful)

          by OrangeTide ( 124937 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @01:30PM (#10633162) Homepage Journal
          Well the shuttle program was originally designed to shuttle cargo and people to an Earth orbit space station. Then from the space station you could go to the Moon, Mars, whatever. If you could safely transport a nuke rocket to Earth orbit and launch and return to a space station (ISS?), then I would think the risk would be much lower. Assuming you were able to fling an old nuke rocket away from the earth when you no longer wanted it. Rather than letting it sink into the atmosphere and burn up.
      • Re:Not quite (Score:4, Interesting)

        by NardofDoom ( 821951 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @01:08PM (#10632918)
        People were all up in arms about Cassini's launch because it had the largest RTG ever launched. They were afraid that it would break up on launch and spread plutonium all over the planet.

        Unfortunately, they ignored the fact that coal burning power plants put more radioactive material into the air every minute than was in the Cassini probe, and that the plutonium wouldn't atomize. It would sink like a rock into the muck at the bottom of the ocean, just like the dozen or so nuclear subs that have been lost. And it would pose no threat to life on Earth.

        Nuclear and radiation are buzzwords that freak out people that don't understand. I'm radioactive right now. Should I be buried in a Nevada salt mine or shot into the sun?

    • Re:Not quite (Score:3, Interesting)

      I think the easy solution to this is to get working on using the ISS as a space dock. Lift the engine into orbit using convential (i.e. chemical) methods and build the mars ship in orbit.
    • Re:Not quite (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Kingpin ( 40003 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:40AM (#10630729) Homepage
      Why should I not fear radioactive material in the atmosphere? Given the track record of shuttles, launchers and what have we - there's obviously a non-negligible chance of accidents happening. In case of such an accident, radioactive debris will fall down, radioactive rain could happen?

      So, why should I not be worried? Please enlighten me.
      • Re:Not quite (Score:5, Informative)

        by AKAImBatman ( 238306 ) * <akaimbatman AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:49AM (#10630812) Homepage Journal
        Did you bother checking the track record of nuclear material that has already rained down [wikipedia.org]? Seems the US has done a fairly good job containing such materials. (That is, right after they figured out that it might be a good idea to do so. :-))
    • by RealProgrammer ( 723725 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:44AM (#10630772) Homepage Journal
      >public fear of anything with the word 'nuclear' in it

      We can't start polluting space with all of that radiation. It'll kill all the trees!

      (For those of you who went to American public schools, a) space is a big place and b) it's pretty well irradiated already by all those pesky stars. There are no trees in space.)
      • If you Read the article they say that if the engine does a castatrophic failure, the amount of nuclear material released is on the order of a few curries.

        Unlike say the millions of curries now currently in storage as waste.
        • If you Read the article they say that if the engine does a castatrophic failure, the amount of nuclear material released is on the order of a few curries.

          A few curries? What about vindaloos? Biryanis? Can we get some samosas and puris with that?
    • by Mulletproof ( 513805 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @10:35AM (#10631283) Homepage Journal
      You simplify this too much. The public tends to fear nuclear power because very specific groups spin nuclear power as the evil demonic force opposed to mother nature. These same groups often use nuclear power as fear-leverage in politics. "Gasp! They want to open up more evil nuclear powerplants and refineries that pollute and readioactivate! Don't vote for them or your child wil grow up with 5 arms! Nuclear waste spill across the highways and nich impreganable underground containment will leak into the ground water, killing us all in several thousand years assuming our technology doesn't advance whatsoever from this point forward. Fear teh nuk3z!"

      It's simple to say the public fears it. It's important to know who is driving that fear.
      • It's simple to say the public fears it. It's important to know who is driving that fear.

        Next Step... counter the fear. Problem is there's no direct pro-nuclear groups/funding out there. So we have to do it ourselves.

        Here's a good book on how to counter an agenda [powells.com]
        (note: it's not clear that anti-nuclear is clearly a right-wing agenda).

  • I wish (Score:3, Interesting)

    by NorthDude ( 560769 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @08:55AM (#10630338)
    This technology is not already doomed because of politics...
  • Phew! (Score:5, Funny)

    by grub ( 11606 ) <slashdot@grub.net> on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @08:55AM (#10630342) Homepage Journal

    and have even solved the graphite ablation problem

    I was just lamenting over the seemingly unsolvable graphite ablation problem!
  • No chance... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by mOoZik ( 698544 )
    ...this will ever be used. Not because it is dangerous, uneconomical, or anything even remotely having to do with reason. Nay. Rather, because the public has a knee-jerk reaction to the word "nuclear," or "atomic," or "nucular." Fact hardly matters in the opinions of an uneducated, uninformed public.

    • Re:No chance... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Morgahastu ( 522162 ) <bshel@WEEZERroge ... fave bands name > on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @08:59AM (#10630373) Journal
      So Nuclear subs have been operating in secret?
      • by SimonShine ( 795915 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:00AM (#10630382) Homepage
        So Nuclear subs have been operating in secret? Well, yeah...
        • Re:Nuclear subs (Score:5, Informative)

          by lousyd ( 459028 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @10:32AM (#10631236)
          So Nuclear subs have been operating in secret?

          Well, yeah...

          You're more right than you (may) know. I served on a nuclear sub, as a reactor operator. In the two years of schooling we get, there's much emphasis on rote memorization as well as understanding. One list we had to memorize is "negative public consequences if there were an accident", one of them being "negative public reaction to the naval nuclear program". We were operating in secret. We were taught that a major part of the reason that the naval nuclear program even still exists is because it's never (ever) had an actual accident. ("Accident" being a strict government policy-defined term.) The only reason we can get away with six nuclear reactors bobbing up and down in San Diego's bay right at this moment is because people really honestly don't know they're there. They're not in the news, they have a low physical profile. "Well yeah", nuclear subs have been operating in secret.

      • by Pxtl ( 151020 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:02AM (#10630391) Homepage
        Nuclear is only okay on things that are designed to kill people. Didn't you get the memo?
        • No no you don't understand, since a sub its underwater, the radiation from it blowing up is harmless. We can blow up as many nuclear bombs/reactors in the water as we went with no reprocussions.
          • Re:No chance... (Score:5, Insightful)

            by mwood ( 25379 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:43AM (#10630765)
            Except for all those contaminated fish. I have photos. (Not secret or amateur stuff either; this was published in the Time-Life Science Library decades ago.)

            It's "okay" to do nuke stuff underwater because the people who shout the loudest *think* it not harmful, just as above-water nuke stuff is evil because the same people *think* it is evil.

            Nuclear policy is probably one of the best arguments for keeping the common man away from the levers of government, alas. We know less than we should about cleaning up power reactor accidents, for example, not because nobody bothered to wonder about it, but because Congress got wind of the SPERT trials and realized they'd never survive the public finding out that we were deliberately making experimental reactors fail in order to understand how to deal with the real thing. (Not to say that we know a lot about cleaning up the mess from coal-fired plants, waste from manufacturing photovoltaic cells, etc. either....)
    • Re:No chance... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by AKAImBatman ( 238306 ) * <akaimbatman AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:00AM (#10630377) Homepage Journal
      That's why it's up to you, me, slashdot, and anyone else who cares about space travel, to make it clear to the public that "Nuclear" is not a dirty word. Odd as it may sound, two thirds of Americans [mcmaster.ca] are currently in favor of nuclear power! If we can keep that number rising, perhaps the public will finally ditch their ridiculous fear!
      • Re:No chance... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:07AM (#10630425)
        Odd as it may sound, two thirds of Americans are currently in favor of nuclear power!

        Most Americans are in favor of garbage dumps too as long as it's not in their back yard and their taxes don't increase.

      • Re:No chance... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by gobbo ( 567674 ) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .etirwerw.> on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:17AM (#10630525) Journal
        I, like many of those in your two-thirds 'statistic,' am not afraid of fission. I'm afraid of idiots who don't know what to do with the products of fission, but take on the job anyway and truck it to some underground facility. I'm afraid of a for-profit utility that cuts corners. I'm afraid of backroom legistlation that looks the other way for the "Mr. Burns" in your town. In other words, the social risks need to be considered, for they are as significant as any technical issue. No different from building a dam upstream; do you want them to bid on the job based on cut-rate concrete? In this issue, the risks are potentially very large and long-lasting, and technology simply isn't enough.

        So the fear isn't ridiculous; what's ridiculous is looking at the problem like a technocrat.
        • Re:No chance... (Score:5, Insightful)

          by danila ( 69889 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:35AM (#10630688) Homepage
          The fear is ridiculous because nuclear plants have an excellent track records, because modern designs are inherently safe, because nuclear waste is compact and relatively easy to store. You counter this with some generic arguments about "cutting corners". Yeah, I am not afraid of building libraries per se, but rather of idiots who build them using a lot of asbestos and poor materials so that they make every reader sick and then eventually collapse, burying hundreds of people underneath the ruins. So let's not build libraries, right?

          You completely fail to grasp the real picture, as if you don't understand a definition of risk. Let me clarify - risk is not that the sky is falling, it's that there is a certain measurable uncertanty over the sky's future position, which we must take into account.

          In real world the risks related to nuclear energy are small. Contrary to what you and your alarmist friends may believe, building a new nuclear reactor doesn't mean a Chernobyl and Hiroshima combined for everyone in 1000 km radius.

          P.S. If you think only technocrats know basic math and are rational, that's rather sad.
          • Wrong risk (Score:5, Insightful)

            by MemeRot ( 80975 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @10:11AM (#10631002) Homepage Journal
            The risk I worry about isn't Chernobyl. It's waste products that have been stored in metal barrels for decades. This country has an abysmal record on safely disposing toxic waste products of all kinds, and there STILL is not a single site working site for permanent disposal of nuclear waste (which will change with Yucca mountain I know). Too bad many experts say that Yucca mountain is seismically unstable....

            The problem with nuclear energy is a false economy. How much expense will running Yucca mountain for the next 10,000 years rack up? How much of its running expenses are currently subsidized by the federal government? That offsets any advantages nuclear fission has in my opinion.

            Fusion obviously has none of those problems, and research into it is drastically underfunded. If the government funded a research program on 1/10 the scale of the Manhattan project into fusion I'm convinced it would become a viable power source and overshadow any of the other alternative energy sources being talked about.
            • Re:Wrong risk (Score:3, Insightful)

              by feidaykin ( 158035 )
              This country has an abysmal record on safely disposing toxic waste products of all kinds

              Bush actually signed a document saying "the Air Force base near Groom Lake, Nevada" (that's Area 51) can simply ignore any safety protocols for disposing of toxic waste. Now, I'm no tin-foil hat and I seriously doubt there is anything of E.T. origin at Area 51, but I do wonder just what sort of mess they've made there, and where they are dumping it.

          • First off, I am totally in support of nuclear power

            That being said, to dismiss the fear as ridiculous is unfortunately as narrow minded and confined a view as the fear itself.

            Quite simply: People (even the smart ones) are nervous about nuclear power because of two major reasons
            1. The magnitude of damage when something goes wrong (ignoring the statistical chances, if Murphy's law doesn't alert this to you, Chernobyl and 3 Mile Island should)
            2. The unwanted side effect of wide spread use of nuclear power: n
            • The magnitude of damage when something goes wrong (ignoring the statistical chances, if Murphy's law doesn't alert this to you, Chernobyl and 3 Mile Island should)

              Millions of people have died from Coal power. Less than 100 have died from Nuclear power. Here's an event that makes Chernobyl look like a walk in the park:

              The Great Smog [ucl.ac.uk]

              Now sit and think for a moment which technology is more dangerous. The one we've embraced (coal) that we know is killing millions, or the one we've shunned (nuclear) which h
              • by Ba3r ( 720309 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @02:24PM (#10633811)

                As I said I am all for nuclear power; as I realize the statistics are in favor of it over other sources of energy. In my parent post my aim was to prevent people, such as yourself, from stubbornly denouncing the counter-arguments (and their derived fears) against nuclear power, as you did.

                Now, just to be patronizing and make sure you understand I will repeat: I am for nuclear power, because statistically it is Safer, and I think that most uses of nuclear power will not lead to proliferation.

                HOWEVER, the fears mentioned are not completly illegitamite, and it is essential we understand them to convice people otherwise.

                Sure, coal power is far more deadly to society as a whole, but people (think they) understand how coal works and how it kills people (suffocation, burning, crushing, carcinogens). People aren't as familiar with nuclear power, and the idea that so little can be so powerful gives them the willies.

                The second point I find far more persuasive against nuclear power. If nuclear power is used in more industries, and more often, then it is invariably exposed (both in terms of concepts and engineering, and raw materials) to more people. The more people it is exposed too, the less secure it is and more possible (statistically!) that one of those people might not be worthy of entrusting with such powerful concepts/materials. Whether or not the nuclear power will be sent to Mars, silently glide 300m below the water off the Siberian coastline, or power an office building, the more widespread it is, the greater the potential that someone who wants to abuse it will get access.

                Since you so drastically misunderstood my post, I will yet again, since I am still frustrated, emphasize that I am For nuclear power and I Agree with the rational, and obvious conculsions you felt necessary to post but I understand that others are not aware of this, and you stubbornly denouncing them as ignorant and blasting out facts will Not quell their fears. You must Understand those fears, especially the legitimate points of those fears, and then maybe you won't copy and paste your canned "Now sit and think for a moment which technology is more dangerous" response, which is part of the reason We pro-nuclear power people never get anywhere. phew!

          • Re:No chance... (Score:3, Interesting)

            by freelunch ( 258011 )
            The fear is ridiculous because nuclear plants have an excellent track records, because modern designs are inherently safe, because nuclear waste is compact and relatively easy to store.

            It isn't ridiculous. As this [psu.edu] recent near catastrophy illustrates.

            A buddy of mine has a masters in nuclear engineering. He tells me of testing steel alloys for various reactor applications and finding siginficant issues. But because the goal of the study was elsewhere, he was told to ignore it by the professor.

            You should
          • Re:No chance... (Score:3, Informative)

            Risk is a very technical term. I work for NASA, and we calculate risks all the time. Your definition above is incomplete.

            The key to understanding risk is that you have to multiply the probability an event happening by the negative effects of the event. So, there's a relatively high risk of you having a fender-bender in your lifetime, but the potential downside is only a few thousand dollars.

            Compare that to the very small, but non-zero, chance of a nuclear meltdown occuring. Even with today's technologi

        • Re:No chance... (Score:4, Interesting)

          by mwood ( 25379 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:49AM (#10630821)
          Okay, so what *should* we do with the products of fission? Recycling is not allowed, since this yields a bit of plutonium which automatically causes all nations to start building bombs. You don't want to store it. "Use it" or "throw it away" seem to be the only options. Should we wave a magic wand and make it disappear?
      • Odd as it may sound, two thirds of Americans are currently in favor of nuclear power!

        Damn, now I'm going to have to change my opinion on nuclear power. I can't be for anything mainstream. Looks like I'm going to have to give up Linux too. I wonder where I put my OS/2 disks.....
  • Indeed. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    "They have heavily improved upon the NERVA NRX design from the 60's, and have even solved the graphite ablation problem!"

    Really? I always found that the ablation problems were rarely touched on by my professor. We spent several weeks in the library and online researching this before coming to the conclusion that the vortex efflunziation was inherent with the NRX designs, especially seeing how the rocket designs went from paper to production in 5 months.

    • Re:Indeed. (Score:5, Informative)

      by AKAImBatman ( 238306 ) * <akaimbatman AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:04AM (#10630399) Homepage Journal
      This design is significantly different from the NRX. For one, they didn't attempt to build the most powerful reactor in the universe. For another, they took advantage of LHOx afterburners. With both of those design choices in mind, they were then able to use a titanium shell to act as the heat sink for the reactor. Not only does it not ablate, but the titanium will melt and scram the reactor long before the reactor itself experiences meltdown.

      In other words, this is an extremely safe reactor design. :-)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:04AM (#10630397)
    Exploration of mars should be second on our list of things to do in the US. Number one should be to have a clear goal on replacing oil as the main source of energy within, say 10 years. Then the US government can shift it energy policy from war to something that benefits us and the world. Why can't we say, ok, first, lets get this urgent problem behind us, and then focus on the next big thing.
    • The space program is full of good side effects that many never expected. You can get a whole lot more imagination going when you propose magnificent problems to scientist.

      Mundane problems generate less interest which usually means they never get solved completely.
    • by npongratz ( 319266 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @10:21AM (#10631117)
      Are you serious??? You want the United States to focus on one scientific goal? You are saying, in effect, that even though there are well over 290 million people in the US [census.gov], each and every citizen should be forced by the government to be focused solely on what you think is the Right Thing(tm). Give me a break!

      The US is still (ostensibly) a free market, capitalist country. Each citizen and industry is free to pursue their own interests. And yes, that even includes interests that might not fit perfectly into narrow-minded people's ideas of what is Best For The Country(tm).

      Thanks to visionaries pursuing their unique interests in a free market economy, non-conformists have made leaps of creativity and ingenuity that have created some of the most helpful technologies used around the world. Don't ruin it for the rest of us with your command-and-control utopia.
  • Safety Question (Score:4, Interesting)

    by higgins ( 100638 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:05AM (#10630403)
    This isn't meant as a panicky "omg! nucular!" question. But we have seen a few space craft blow up spectacularly. Now, I assume the designers are bright enough that these engines could not actually produce a nuclear explosion, but wouldn't a conventional explosion at high altitude run a high risk of scattering nuclear material all over the place? Is there a good reason I shouldn't be worried about that?
    • Re:Safety Question (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Wyatt Earp ( 1029 )
      They could encase the fuel in the same sorts of containers they use for modern RTG. They tend not to fail in accidents or tests.
    • Re:Safety Question (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Reducer2001 ( 197985 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:12AM (#10630462) Homepage
      There already was a spacecraft/satelitte that had a nuclear device in that "blew up" in space. The only thing that remained was the nuclear material, still perfectly stored in it's container. I'm sorry for not having a source to back to this up, but I'm at work. Here's [nasa.gov] a ton of info about this stuff.
    • Re:Safety Question (Score:4, Insightful)

      by honestmonkey ( 819408 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:13AM (#10630467) Journal
      This engine is not designed (as far as I can tell, I didn't actually read the entire article or anything radical like that) for use in the atmosphere. It would be carted up into NEO and attached to whatever ship is going to Mars. The fuel can be put in containers that would survive an accident on liftoff. All in all it's no worse a problem than any other liftoff. And it's probably one of the only realistic ways to get to Mars.
    • Maybe with the risk of nuclear power they will take extra precautions (they should have in the first place - but this might give more incentive).
      What I worry about is the radiation effect of sitting 20 feet away from this nuclear reactor for an extended period of time...basically shielding, redundency shielding, and then some more shielding.
      They can probably leave the engine/reactor in space when the ship plans to land back on Earth.
      Can't they also send the nuclear material in really dense containers?
    • Re:Safety Question (Score:5, Informative)

      by AKAImBatman ( 238306 ) * <akaimbatman AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:20AM (#10630557) Homepage Journal
      Well, you could always RTFA. Here:

      BB: Is there a 'fail safe' operation in the event the reactor core must
      be shut down exiting a planetary 'gravity well' or on approach to a
      'gravity well' ?

      RJ: There are several features that we have adapted and evolved into the
      current 'TRITON' design to handle risk mitigation for the Uranium
      Dioxide (UO_2 ) fuel element core in a Nuclear Thermal Rocket (NTR).
      We have approached this by providing an integrated, robust design the
      uses dual turbopumps (turbopumps provide coolant flow to the reactor in
      propulsion mode).
      In thrust mode where you have high power operation, is where this
      concern has been typically addressed.
      The safety features that have been taken into account for risk reduction
      entail constant supply of reactor coolant by using dual turbopumps. This
      means turbopumps with their moving parts like bearings, shafts, turbines
      etc. may cavitate and over speed, if for some reason one of the
      turbopumps showed signs of malfunction or not operating within
      appropriate parameters, you could effectively shutdown or bypass the
      offending turbopump and still have coolant flow going to the reactor.
      This is one of the key features for propulsion mode operation to make
      sure coolant is available to ?flush; the reactor if it needs to be shut
      down when it has gotten to the full thermal power level. In power mode
      it's [core] sitting at an idling power-level so the amount of time for
      the reactor to over-heat if starved of coolant (i.e. He/Xe gas) is
      extremely negligible because you are running the reactor core at nearly
      half the maximum temperatures the core is design for. So, if in the
      event of something like let's say, a minor leak in the radiator during
      power-mode operation, you can do a shut-down of the reactor from a very
      moderate control state without over-heating the reactor core. Other
      failure mode mitigation would be to have a segmented radiator design, or
      have a coolant purge circuit in the design, or actually split the
      coolant circuit to provide redundancy. We also have several valve
      arrangements so that in the event of leakage in idle power mode you
      could shut a section of the radiator down; the temperature of the
      reactor is so low it would cool down on its own. This works to our favor
      in the ?TRITON? design because the CERMET core materials have high
      maximum operating temperatures since it's designed for exit temperatures
      near 2,700-K in the propulsion mode.
      Another feature is the nature of going to a fast spectrum reactor. It
      allows issues such as criticality and impact immersion (e.g. wet sand or
      salt water) to immediately be mitigated because of the reactor neutron
      flux levels and the use of only a reflector and no moderator to
      thermalize a bulk of the neutrons. Essentially it helps to 'poison' the
      internal nature of the reactor so in the worst case event at launch, if
      the reactor were to end up in sand or saltwater it will keep it from
      resorting to a super-critical state. If it shuts down after a brief
      period of operation, like for some reason and I had to shut it down
      during an early phase of a human Mars mission, the 'burn-up' (fission
      product build-up) is so low. Even if I run it for only 5 minutes or, 10
      minutes I'd have built up only a minuscule amount that could barely be
      measured with regards to build-up of fission products in the core. So if
      it did for some reason re-enter the earth?s atmosphere, the radiation
      levels are only slightly higher than typical naturally occurring levels.
      Now, you would have to methodically go through a full risk analysis, or
      a whole mission point-to-point to define the 'What if scenarios' along
      the mission's plan to properly build in aborts for all the most probable
      failure modes.
      For example, one 'What if scenarios' would look at the failure modes for
      an orbit capture high-thrust burn at a planet Mars or for Lunar
      transport. In essence, an inve
    • Re:Safety Question (Score:3, Interesting)

      by WhiplashII ( 542766 )
      The real question here is "how safe is a radiactive substance?" People often try to answer this by saying, we have done X so it isn't possible to have the reactor break, etc. (I mean, it is only for use in space, so it really shouldn't ever be near unshielded humans. Space is already a nastly place filled with radiation.) But everyone knows that humans aren't perfect, we can't forsee everything, etc. So, if the thing blows up and dumps radioactive stuff all over, what happens?

      Well, first of all note
  • Hopeless (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Ford Prefect ( 8777 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:07AM (#10630423) Homepage
    What's wrong with Project Orion? [wikipedia.org] ;-)

    I mean, if we're going to go to Mars, we might as well do it properly - even if it does end up filling the atmosphere with radioactive fallout...
    • by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:21AM (#10630559) Homepage
      It's too bad that silly public hysteria when they started filling the atmosphere with radioactive fallout in the 1950s doomed such projects (at least until those who remember the 1950s die off).

      We coulda had Project Orion. We coulda sea-level canal across Nicaragua excavated by peaceful nuclear blasts. We coulda had electricity too cheap to meter.

      All spoiled, spoiled I tell you. Just on account of a few dead sheep, some irradiated Japanese sailors, a few U.S. soldiers with cancer, a little bit of fogged film (cardboard cartons made from fallout-tainted woodpulp), and a few "Sunshine Units"-worth of strontium-90 in the milk. And some problems working the bugs out of Windscale, Detroit Fermi, Browns Ferry, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl.

      • by Control Group ( 105494 ) * on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:45AM (#10630779) Homepage
        Please do not lump Project Orion and the Nicaraguan Canal together with nuclear power generation.

        Nuclear power generation is self-contained, and only problematic in case of catastrophic failure. The other two are problematic when functioning as designed. Associating the three is precisely what has prevented the use of nuclear power generation.

        You of course scare-monger by mentioning nuclear power plant failures, but you'll notice that the world has (shock!) survived just fine. While the death toll from an event like Chernobyl is certainly tragic, there are risks associated with developing any technology. Beyond which, I have the sneaking suspicion that more people have died from the effects of air pollution caused by fossil-fuel power generation than have died due to nuclear reactor failure by orders of magnitude.

        I also suspect (based on broad stereotyping, admittedly, so feel free to tell me I'm wrong) that you also buy into global warming as a result of mankind's CO2 production, in which case the death toll from fossil fuel plants will be yet more orders of magnitude higher than would be caused by the occasional nuclear plant failure.

  • Inexpensive? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Goo.cc ( 687626 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:11AM (#10630456)
    A trip to Mars will be many things, but it won't be inexpensive.
  • Everyone get out your wooden clogs and prepare to throw them into the evil machines!
  • Unlike P&W's previous engines, however, this engine is not a jet, and is powered by Nuclear Fission.

    P&W rocket engines like the RL-10 [pratt-whitney.com] are not jets, they are pump fed rocket engines. Jets are air breathing by definition. The main differences between a nuclear engine and a traditional combustion engine is the source of the heat (nuclear vs. chemical) and single exhaust fluid source.

  • by Omega697 ( 586982 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:31AM (#10630647)
    With this new engine, it seems that an inexpensive trip to Mars is now firmly within our grasp. Will we rise to the challenge?

    There are so many other things standing in our way before we get to Mars, it's not even funny. Do you seriously think that we only need a good rocket to get to Mars? There's no way any trip to Mars in the next 50 years will be considered "inexpensive".
  • The diagram of the engine is fairly straightforward, but they didn't show the manual ejection system for the reactor core [memory-alpha.org], or the ducts to route plasma and coolent from the engine to the navigational deflectors [powernet.net], or the ducts from the bussard collectors [powernet.net]
  • Weirdly apropos (Score:4, Interesting)

    by caveat ( 26803 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:47AM (#10630801)
    discovery wings is at the moment running a show on Project Pluto [wikipedia.org], the government's project to develop a nuclear-powered ramjet in the 50s/60s. the research got up to successfully running the full-scale Tory-IIC 500Mw prototype for 5 minutes at 35,000lbs thrust. i realize a ramjet design is different from a thermal rocket design, but does anybody know why 'they' can't use the basic design of the tory reactor, homogenous uranium/beryllium oxide fuel tubes, at the heart of the rocket engine? seems an ideal situation, theres no graphite to ablate and AFAIK the oxide ceramics stand up pretty well to hydrogen.
    • Re:Weirdly apropos (Score:3, Informative)

      by AKAImBatman ( 238306 ) *
      The Tory reactor was DESIGNED to spread as much radiation as possible over populated areas. This was considered a "bonus" by the military, as they could keep wreaking destruction even after the bombs were dropped. In short, the design was a little sadistic.
  • by jdkane ( 588293 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @09:53AM (#10630850)
    With this new engine, it seems that an inexpensive trip to Mars is now firmly within our grasp. Will we rise to the challenge?"

    All excited, the trip takes its toll on your body but you finally get to Mars, severely disappointed because there's nothing to do and the environment is too severe to enjoy, cry and want to go home to earth, go crazy on the way back to earth, have lost your job, get committed to a mental institution.

  • by IronChefMorimoto ( 691038 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @10:35AM (#10631266)
    I'm not a rocket scientist, or I'd have something more informative to say.

    I did skim over the Wikipedia article, though, and I was curious -- the impression given is that these sorts of rocket engines can't escape Earth gravity and would have to be put together in orbit (again -- going strictly by Wikipedia article on subject).

    I have 2 questions. First, if you build it in space, and you make it to Mars, would you have enough thrust in the lower gravity of Mars to lift off again with a full payload, say, of people and Mars rocks? Would a Mars lander be required with conventional rockets to get back to a control vehicle?

    My second question is -- how the hell would they put this together at a reasonable cost in space? The Russians blew the hell out of their Mir space station at least a few times. And I seem to remember that the new ISS crew nearly rammed the hell out of the space station when they hooked up with the station last week. Feel free to pile on with other minor news stories about lost tools, broken this and that, etc. with the ISS.

    And you want politicians with money from taxpayers to approve funding for NASA to build something "nuclear" in orbit with this kind of scary news history? I have full faith that NASA or an international consortium could make it work, but what about Joe Public, the environmentally-motivated voter, who fears a mushroom cloud screwing up astronomy night for his kids?

    Finally, and this is most important -- with this nuclear rocket engine, would the guy from Sliders and Gary Sinise be able to save Tim Robbins before he burned up in the Mars atmosphere?

    IronChefMorimoto
  • by puzzled ( 12525 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @10:44AM (#10631388) Journal


    Burning coal puts 25 tons of bomb grade Uranium into the air every year and I forget the exact amount of U238. The U238 gets hit by high energy neutrons from cosmic ray impacts and changes into ... Plutonium.

    Launching a little dab of Uranium under highly controlled conditions doesn't seem like such a big deal when you know this fact.
  • Bah! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ljavelin ( 41345 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @11:53AM (#10632079)
    Note that the engineering term "intrinsically safe" has a substantially different meaning than "inherently safe". Although the terms are used interchangably by some, those who live by the "law of milspecs" never confuse the two.

    In any case, it'd be wise for P&W to rename it something other than a nuclear engineer. That's dumb marketing. Hell, they don't call the Army's M1 tank the "nuclear tank", despite its use of depleted uranium.

    And anyhow, many jet engine parts use radioactive materials for hardness and during the manufacturing process. This is not news.
  • VASIMR (Score:4, Informative)

    by LordMyren ( 15499 ) on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @11:58AM (#10632137) Homepage
    VASMIR [wikipedia.org] seems like a far more generally useful form of space propulsion [wikipedia.org]. The basic premise is the use of radio and magnetic fields to accelerate propellants. Its also inline with the general plan for societal advancement. It is rooted in many of the same technology we'd use to build Fusion reactors, relying upon superconductors, magnetofluid-dyanmics and plasmas. It was derived from plasma manipulation techniques discovered in fusion experiments.

    Whereas a nuclear rocket will aid one given form of space travel: moving to mars and back, VASIMR systems are useful from launch to interplanetary, using extremely dynamic engines which consume virtually neglidgible reaction mass (aka fuel). They do, however, require a power source, which could well some nuclear variety, particularly for takeoff. VASIMR's fuel is hydrogen, which is a) readily available anywhere in the galaxy (including mars) and b) the most effective radiation shield we know.

    This guy said one nuclear engine should cost about $1 Bil to produce. ITER [wikipedia.org] is estimating $10 Billion for the first working Fusion power plant and will indirectly aid useful space travel more than a nuclear rocket. The ITER project aims to create a 500MW sustainable power plant. Compare this to JET, our current Tokamaka, which bursted at a world record 16MW. Yes, this is an apples to oranges comparison.

    We need to stop dumping cash at quick easy bandaids to solve the next problem and begin evaluating our long term priorities as a society. We are wasting money on a hydrogen economy which will make coal plants burn the fuel our current cars would be burning anyways. We are wasting money building nuclear rockets. There is an energy crisis at hand and a environmental problem looming. We need reknewable resources. If we're going to be dumping billions in to space flight again, we might as well research two things which will go hand in hand.

    Harness plasma. Make fusion go. Learn how to D-T react, and then get D-D reactions as fast as possible. Miniaturize.
  • by serutan ( 259622 ) <snoopdoug.geekazon@com> on Tuesday October 26, 2004 @02:47PM (#10634124) Homepage
    I think Gas Core is the way to go. As the article mentions, a solid core reactor engine is expected to have a specific impulse of only 800-900 seconds, compared with 1500-2000 for a Gas Core engine of the closed loop type (no radioactive emissions). This translates into heavy lifting capability. As the article says, the solid core engine weighs to much it is only useful for vehicles already in orbit, so it would have to be lifted up in pieces by other ships. For really grand-scale work, like putting factories and hotels into space and hauling significant loads to Mars in a reasonable time, we need the big kahuna lifting power of a gaseous core engine.

    Here is a highly detailed 12-part article [nuclearspace.com] that discusses a Saturn-V size gas core rocket that would lift a payload of 1000 TONS from the ground to orbit and return with an equal payload to a powered landing. Skip the first 5 parts (author's justification of why to build it) if just want to know how it works.

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