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NASA Mars Space Transportation

NASA Looks At Reviving Atomic Rocket Program (newatlas.com) 122

Big Hairy Ian shares a report from New Atlas: When the first manned mission to Mars sets out, it may be on the tail of an atomic rocket engine. The Space Race vintage technology could have a renaissance at NASA after the space agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama signed a contract with BWXT Nuclear Energy to develop updated Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) concepts and new fuel elements to power them.

Today, with NASA once again considering the challenges of sending astronauts to Mars, the nuclear option is back on the table as part of the agency's Game Changing Development program. Under this, NASA has awarded BMXT, which supplies nuclear fuel to the U.S. Navy, a $18.8-million contract running through September 30, 2019 to look into the possibility of developing a new engine using a new type of fuel. Unlike previous designs using highly enriched uranium, BMXT will study the use of Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU), which has less than 20 percent of fissile uranium 235. This will provide a number of advantages. Not only is it safer than the highly enriched fuel, but the security arrangements are less burdensome, and the handling regulations are the same as those of a university research reactor. If NASA determines next month that the LEU engine is feasible, the project will conduct testing and refine the manufacturing process of the Cermet fuel elements over the course of a year, with testing of the full-length Cermet fuel rods to be conducted at Marshall.

Slashdot reader Big Hairy Ian adds: "At the very least it looks much more feasible than Project Orion."

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NASA Looks At Reviving Atomic Rocket Program

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  • So what happens if there's a fault and the RSO hits the self-destruct button?
    • by Cyberax ( 705495 ) on Saturday August 12, 2017 @04:19AM (#54997343)
      Nothing much. Until reactor is started for the first time, it doesn't contain anything that is not found in nature. It's basically more concentrated uranium, so it can be safely disposed of by letting it crash into the sea. And presumably, the reactor is designed in such a way that it won't become critical after immersion into seawater.

      There are interesting developments in this area. For example, Kilopower ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org] ) is aimed to replace RTGs since Pu-238 is becoming too scarce. It will produce about 4kW of thermal energy and will be completely passively regulated by natural thermal expansion of components - no moving parts required whatsoever.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Not to dismiss the technology there (tungsten cermet sounds cool -- or perhaps the opposite of that :-) but "nothing that is not found in nature" ain't in itself reassuring.

        After all, asbestos [wikipedia.org] is readily found in nature, too. Paracelsus, dosis and that.

      • Low enriched uranium means a much larger(heavier) reactor core for the same thrust. So you spend much more to launch it and get much lower cargo capacity.

  • Those political donations from BWX really paid off!
    Why else is a company that has had nothing to do with rocketry of any kind doing this instead of NASA, the Air Force or a University?
    It's kind of sad because it would be nice to see an atomic rocket instead of vanishing pork money funding a very expensive undergraduate level literature survey.
    • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

      More likely it is about producing large amounts of energy is space to use rather than chucking crap out the back to make you go. Chuck stuff out the back and you might as well be using elastic bands with rocks as fuel, you know how old rockets really are and we are still using that technology, really quite embarrassing. Engines to be used in space might well look nothing like what you are expecting, especially if they are designed to project fields outwards, blades, rather than inwards, cones. Energy is key

      • by dbIII ( 701233 )
        That would be nicer but you'd pick someone with a track record if that was the actual goal, and if there's nowhere with a track record private industry is not where you go since that's the expensive way to do it.
    • by dcw3 ( 649211 )

      Those political donations from BWX really paid off!

      At first, I kinda thought you were trolling, but then there's this:
      https://www.opensecrets.org/pa... [opensecrets.org]

    . /Why not vacation in beautiful Bellingham, Washington?

  • Just takes a lot of people with BIG BRASS BALLS!
    It's been about 50 years that the NERVA program has been on hold - mostly because of the atmospheric nuclear test ban treaties of the time, and also the space nuclear bans related to those test bans.

    Check out these 2 sites / articles for some history of a WORKING nuclear powered rocket engine - - -
    NERVA testing - https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]
    and - http://www.daviddarling.info/e... [daviddarling.info]

    I was in high school, and missed out on actually seeing one of the tests at Jackass Flats in early 1967 because I wa

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Can the engines run on reprocessed spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors?

  • Nuclear thermal is a nice technology for some missions (but probably not Mars where the delta-V isn't all that high). The problem is that I don't see it as political realistic. There are political issues with radioisotope generators on deep space probes - for example the proposed Europa lander will have a very limited lifetime because it will only have chemical batteries.

    I think a NTR could be launched safely if it hasn't been turned on yet, but I also think that there is not a snowballs chance in hell o

    • by ebvwfbw ( 864834 )

      If only people would stop giving money to scientifically ignorant, no that's not fair... scientifically combative organizations like Green Peace, we could move forward. Green Peace and Sierra Club combat things like this because they want more money and they keep frightening people into thinking they're bad. Anything is bad if it's not used right. Just like the Japs with their power plants. Not just one, Three nuke plants in an area known for being flooded and the dimwits put the generators in the basement

  • When I took Intro Chemistry at San Jose State University (before they kicked me out for playing too much Magic: The Gathering [amzn.to] into the wee hours), we had a tour of the research reactor in the basement of the science building. We were reassured that the reactor was completely safe. If it ever did go kablooey (extremely unlikely), it would only blow up the building. Rest assured that I went into computers instead of nuclear science.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Why is thorium never consider. It is a safer fuel, liquid in reactor use, easy to contain when things go bad, being a liquid you can drain it off into several containment vessels and the waste product much easier to contain as most of it is lead.

    Why? Same reason we use uranium; can't make a bomb. Almost all thorium byproducts are at the end of the fission scale, but Thorium is fairly easy to find in nature; easier than uranium.

    Hell the lead might make good ejection mass for a ship in flight. Solar wind woul

    • Tell Kirk Sorensen to take back his paycheck
      232-U neutron absorption ensures no 233-U reactor will ever be self-sustaining supercritical.
      Failed tech won't get us to Mars or anywhere else.
  • It seems that less enriched fuel would require a larger, heavier engine. They may actually build one, but up front after thinking it out, or eventually after seeing the practical problems, they will discard the LEU engine concept.
  • as in, how many million tons of chemical fuel to boost the reaction mass (water) into low orbit?
    Nuclear engines do not have higher specific impulse than LH2-LOx and thus, the reaction mass will be GREATER and require a larger chemical rocket to hit LEO.
    Thus a nuclear engine will have to be a low delta-v ion/magnetic drive.
    So, reaction mass will go up separately, on Chemical rockets and will be even MORE expensive.
  • Is less than what it cost to refuel a shuttle SRB
  • There are existing reactors in the hundred-kilowatt range and potential for development of megawatt range reactors, which are feasible for space - spent about 3 hours today just reading up on VASIMR [wikipedia.org] and MPD [wikipedia.org] engines, which - when combined with modern designs for nuclear reactors - will open up speedy access to the entire solar system, and far beyond. Check this list of reactors - old, new and potential - and the energy outputs we've already achieved: http://www.world-nuclear.org/i... [world-nuclear.org] The future of space ex
  • You be the judge...

    https://www.opensecrets.org/pa... [opensecrets.org]

3500 Calories = 1 Food Pound