For a Real Blast, Strap a Nuclear Reactor to a Spaceship

By Eliza Strickland | October 30, 2009 5:26 pm

humans-on-marsThe Russian space agency has proposed a powerful new way to get a spacecraft to Mars or beyond: just put a big ole nuclear reactor on board.

The head of the agency, Anatoly Perminov, just proposed this new class of nuclear-powered spaceships for manned missions to explore our solar system. “The project is aimed at implementing large-scale space exploration programs, including a manned mission to Mars, interplanetary travel, the creation and operation of planetary outposts” [AP], Perminov wrote in an online statement. He suggested that preliminary designs could be completed by 2012, and said it would then take about nine years and $600 million to build the spacecraft. Some experts call these numbers utterly unrealistic, but Russian President Dmitry Medvedev insists that the government is very serious about the project.

The idea of a nuclear-powered spacecraft is not entirely new. Some NASA space probes that venture into the outer reaches of the solar system (where solar panels are less effective) make use of a mild type of nuclear power, in which the gradual decay of radioactive plutonium isotopes generates electricity. But such systems can only produce a few hundred watts of electricity. In contrast, the craft that Perminov proposes would be powered by a nuclear fission reactor, where uranium atoms are split to produce energy. Perminov said the new nuclear-powered ship should have a megawatt-class nuclear reactor, as opposed to small nuclear reactors that powered some Soviet military satellites. The Cold War-era Soviet spy satellites had reactors that produced just a few kilowatts of power and had a life span of about a year [AP].

A megawatt-class manned spaceship is an ambitious idea, but Igor Lisov, a Russian aerospace expert, says he doesn’t believe it will ever be built. “Both the US and the USSR tried very hard to master this technology, but neither ever got to the point of building something that could be used,” he says. Environmentalists point to a long list of accidents with Soviet nuclear-powered satellites, including the crash of Kosmos-954 over northern Canada, which spread radioactive debris over a wide area [The Christian Science Monitor]. A nuclear-powered spacecraft would primarily pose an environmental threat if something went wrong during takeoff or re-entry into the atmosphere, but experts also worry about astronauts’ radiation exposure from the reactor.

Related Content:
80beats: More Plutonium, Please: DoE Promises to Cook Up More Spaceship Fuel
80beats: Would A Mission to Mars Drive Astronauts Insane? Six Earth-Bound Volunteers Aim to Find Out.
80beats: The Real Problem With a Human Trip to Mars: Radiation
80beats: Buzz Aldrin Speaks Out: Forget the Moon, Let’s Head to Mars
80beats: Russia Plans to Power Arctic Oil Drilling With Floating Nuclear Plants

Image: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Mark

    None of these articles explain how electricity can propel a spaceship. Drive a propeller? Hardly. It still needs ionized gas to accelerate across an electric potential or with a magnetic field. They are proposing a megawatt ion drive, I assume, but none of the articles in newspapers or science mags have any real information about how it would work.

  • seth

    The more modern answer a Hyperion nuclear reactors coupled to Vasimir plasma engines for interplanetary travel (moon,asteroids,Mars). Only a tiny of amount of fuel would be required for the Vasimir.

    Take a Vasimir/Hyperion assembly, attached it to the space station, fire the whole thing into a 2 month long Mars-Earth orbit pattern.

    Launch several more Vasimir/Hyperion units to use as high speed shuttles at Mars and Earth.

    Also it would be handy to use a Vasimir/Hyperion tug to move nickel iron and carbon/water asteriods into earth orbit for supplies, construction materials. and a habitat.

    For a real out there idea that well you never know look at the emdrive.

  • Carl

    @Mark said: “None of these articles explain how electricity can propel a spaceship. Drive a propeller? Hardly. It still needs ionized gas to accelerate across an electric potential or with a magnetic field…”

    Isn’t the solar wind a big stream of ionized gas? Seems to me that someone could find a way to use that ‘wind’ to propel a spacecraft using magnetic fields the way we use airfoils to create thrust.

  • Bill

    They say the EmDrive has completed successful tests of a mass less ElectroMagnetic Drive using normal values of Q for the drive chamber. Formula says if they increase Q
    to 5×10 9th power which has been done with superconductors for Physics experiments
    they can get 3 tonnes/kw of thrust as long as the thrust does not appreciably accelerate
    the vehicle. The Q will go way down if acceleration takes place but in Space a Pulsed drive using this EMdrive while very uncomfortable would work using just a megawatt or so from the Nuclear Reactor. See emdrive dot com for more info.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    None of these articles explain how electricity can propel a spaceship.

    More to the point, Perminov never mentioned “electricity”.

    The simplest way is to heat propulsion mass. That will double the specific impulse. NERVA Alpha reference engine had a s.i. of 875 s [austronatix] vs a bipropellant rocket’s 450 s [Wikipedia]. (That is, if you have a reactor at all. The simpler alternative is an Orion explosion drive.)

  • pat

    You wouldnt need any of that fancy electronic stuff, just a pipe out the back spewing out steam. you would use plain old water for fuel.

  • John

    Google “rd-0410 ntp engine”, that’s the one they’re talking about. Some sites are better than others just check ‘em out.

  • Roadtripper

    Most importantly, the higher specific impulse of nuclear v. chemical rockets has the potential to greatly reduce mission duration. This makes all the other problems (supplies, radiation exposure, crew psychology) that much easier to solve for a hypothetical long-duration mission. Mars, for instance, would no longer be a 1000-day mission; this technology could easily cut that figure in half.


  • Ron Bennett

    Nuclear propulsion was talked about and experimented with since the beginning of time, the beginning of time, as I see it, time only started the second I was born. NASA and the Russians tried experimenting with nuclear propulsion in the sixties, I went to a Mars conference in 2005 where the US was talking about nuclear propulsion again, everyone was there including the Russians, at that time the Russians were talking about nuclear electric.

    US was more adamant about nuclear propulsion instead of nuclear electric propulsion because it keeps it simple with less things to break down than nuclear electric. Nuclear electric propulsion would need a large Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, VASIMR, engine, Ion drive etc., etc., to propel it. As been said before water or gas in superheated to steam or gas out exhaust, the hotter the steam or gas the faster you go, the less amount of fuel you need. Nuclear electric like the VASIMR engine would be the way to go in the future because now you are talking about superheated plasma, much faster exhaust speed, according to the builder of the VASIMR, Franklin Chang-Diaz, it will get you too Mars in as little as 39 days.

  • steven

    I have envisioned using a hybrid airship with a hyperion reactor on board and multiple vasimir rockets. Instead of using helium you could use hydrogen in the airship and also use it for fuel. Using the nuclear reactor you could have 20 mw of electric motors powering counter-rotating props to get the airship to quite a high altitude before firing the rockets. It would also be wasy to come back down to earth which is another advantage. To be able to withstand reentry you could use carbon nanotubes for the skin of the airship. All of these technologies are new but they do exit and they could make a efficient and viable ship.

  • Chris Thomas

    Why not simply go the old fashioned route.
    and use a ship with the following starting from the base up five N.E.R.V.A. engines.
    a radiation shield.
    then a support frame with spherical fuel i.e. water tanks in the middle and toridal tanks around the support frame.
    with space for landers and an access tunnel between the landers strage and the main life support habitat.
    I would put the main supplys storage in frount of the life support habitat with an access tunnel thru to the control room at the frount end of the ship and a micro-meteorite shield at the stem.
    this is the best lay-out I can figure at this Time.
    I would not go beond this except to say Torch Ship.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar

Login to your Account

E-mail address:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »