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NASA’s expensive nuclear space race

NASA revives its Cold War-era idea of using atomic rockets to create ‘drastically smaller’ craft that will get to Mars by the 2030s

NASA plans to use the same technology it discontinued using in the 1970s
NASA partnered with BWXT Nuclear Energy to develop nuclear propulsion tech
A nuclear system can cut the voyage time to Mars from six months to just four
Nuclear Thermal Propulsion project could significantly change space travel

“……..NASA says it will use technology it discontinued in the 1970s to create ‘drastically smaller’ craft capable of greater speeds than their non-nuclear rivals.

This system could cut the voyage time to Mars from six months to four and safely deliver human explorers by reducing their exposure to cosmic radiation.

NASA first hinted at the potential for nuclear thermal propulsion technologies last year, saying that they are more promising than ever.

It partnered with BWXT Nuclear Energy, based in Lynchburg, Virginia, in an $18.8 million (£13.3m) contract to refine those concepts.

The resulting Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) project could significantly change space travel, according to its creators.

This is mostly due to its ability to push a large amount of propellant out of the back of a rocket at very high speeds, resulting in a highly efficient, high-thrust engine.

‘As we push out into the solar system, nuclear propulsion may offer the only truly viable technology option to extend human reach to the surface of Mars and to worlds beyond,’ said Sonny Mitchell, nuclear thermal propulsion project manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre, in Huntsville, Alabama.

We’re excited to be working on technologies that could open up deep space for human exploration.’

…….. getting to Mars entails a 55 million-kilometre (34 million-mile) flight, more than 100 times the distance between Earth and the Moon.

The NTP project is under the umbrella of NASA’s Game Changing Development Program, which advances space technologies that may lead to entirely new approaches for the Agency’s future space missions and provide solutions to significant national needs.

Given its experience delivering nuclear fuels for the US Navy, BWXT will help with the design and testing of  promising, low-enriched uranium-based nuclear thermal engine concept and ‘Cermet’ – ceramic metallic – fuel element technolgy.

During BWXT-NASA contract, which is set to run through to September 30, 2019, BWXT will manufacture and test prototype fuel elements and also help NASA address and resolve nuclear licensing and regulatory requirements.

The project will test full-length fuel rods using a unique Marshall test facility.

………. the complexities of the technology and testing could lead to high development costs, which could be a major barrier, however, using NASA technology developed decades ago could help speed up progress, says Claudio Bruno,

Russia also has plans to reach the red planet using nuclear technologies.

Russia’s Rosatorm Corporation plans this year to test a nuclear engine for a spacecraft that can travel to Mars.

China also plans to use nuclear-powered shuttles as part of its space explortation endeavours through to 2045.

NASA also faces competition in reaching Mars from the likes of Elon Musk and his company SpaceX, which just launched its Falcon Heavy rocket, which is designed to carry humans to space.

However, SpaceX is planning on using a liquid oxygen and methane fueled engine.

…….NASA is also developing technologies that could power human settlements on Mars.

The agency, along with the Department of Energy, is developing Kilopower which could provide 10 kilowatts of power and be used on others planets.  ….


February 17, 2018 - Posted by | technology, USA

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