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Russia and the quest for nuclear power in space

Below are extracts from this very thoroughly researched article. The original contains much historical detail, good diagrams and excellent references

Ekipazh: Russia’s top-secret nuclear-powered satellite, The Space Review, by Bart Hendrickx, Monday, October 7, 2019  There is strong evidence from publicly available sources that a Russian company called KB Arsenal is working on a new type of military satellite equipped with a nuclear power source. Called Ekipazh, its mission may well be to perform electronic warfare from space.

KB Arsenal, based in St. Petersburg, is no newcomer to the development of nuclear-powered satellites. In the Soviet days it built satellites known as US-A (standing for “active controllable satellite”), which carried nuclear reactors to power radars used for ocean reconnaissance (in the West they were known as “radar ocean reconnaissance satellites” or RORSAT for short.)  ……………
 evidence emerged in the past few years for the existence of another KB Arsenal project with the odd name Ekipazh (a French loanword meaning both “crew” and “horse-drawn carriage”). The name first surfaced in the 2015 annual report of a company called NPP KP Kvant, which manufactures optical sensors for satellite orientation systems. It revealed that the company had signed a contract with KB Arsenal under project Ekipazh to deliver an Earth sensor (designated 108M) for “transport and energy modules.” According to the 2015 report, test flights of Ekipazh were to be completed in 2021.
Documentation published in recent weeks and months on Russia’s publicly accessible government procurement website has now confirmed that Ekipazh and TEM are indeed separate efforts. While TEM is a civilian project started jointly by Roscosmos and Rosatom in 2010, Ekipazh officially got underway on August 13, 2014, with a contract signed between KB Arsenal and the Ministry of Defense. It has the military index 14F350, an out-of-sequence number in the 14F satellite designation system, pointing to the satellite’s unusual nature………
While this procurement documentation reveals little about the true nature of Ekipazh and its “transport and energy module,” contractual information that appeared on the procurement website this summer provides conclusive evidence that Ekipazh is a nuclear-powered satellite and leaves little doubt that it uses the Plazma-2010 platform or an outgrowth of it…………

Regulatory issues

Despite the safety risks associated with launching nuclear reactors into space, there are no international rules forbidding nations from doing so. In September 1992, the General Assembly of the United Nations did adopt the so-called “Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space,” but these do not have the same binding force as the UN Outer Space Treaties.

One of the Principles stipulates that nuclear reactors may be operated on interplanetary missions, orbits high enough to allow for a sufficient decay of the fission products, or in low-Earth orbits if they are boosted to sufficiently high orbits after the operational part of the mission. As explained earlier, the latter procedure was followed for the Soviet-era RORSAT missions, but it is highly unlikely that Russia would want to risk repeating the Cosmos 954 experience of 1978. In fact, the very presence of a “transport and energy module” on Ekipazh is a sure sign that it will be placed into an orbit high enough to prevent any harm. Before the nuclear-powered TEM is even activated, a liquid-fuel propulsion system may first boost the satellite to an orbital altitude of at least 800 kilometers, the same procedure that has been described for the one-megawatt TEM. During a recent question-and-answer question with students in St. Petersburg, Roscosmos chief Dmitri Rogozin confirmed that 800 kilometers is the minimum operating altitude for nuclear reactors. Judging from Russian press reports, Rogozin was actually replying to a question about Ekipazh, but seemingly dodged that by talking about the one-megawatt reactor instead.[38]

Another Principle states that launching nations should make a thorough and comprehensive safety assessment and share the results of that with other nations before launch:

The results of this safety assessment, together with, to the extent feasible, an indication of the approximate intended time-frame of the launch, shall be made publicly available prior to each launch and the Secretary-General of the United Nations shall be informed on how States may obtain such results of the safety assessment as soon as possible prior to each launch.

Russia adhered to this rule on the only occasion that it launched nuclear material into space after the adoption of the 1992 Principles. This was on the ill-fated Mars-96 interplanetary mission, which carried two surface penetrators powered by small radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). However, unlike Ekipazh, Mars-96 was an international scientific mission and the presence of the RTGs was widely known. It will be interesting to see how Russia deals with this issue once the top-secret Ekipazh nears launch.


It may well be several more years before that launch takes place. Although the initial goal appears to have been to finish test flights by 2021, the available procurement documentation suggests that the first mission is still some time off. Ekipazh may well be experiencing the same kind of delays suffered by many other Russian space projects due to both budgetary issues and Western-imposed sanctions that have complicated the supply of electronic components for space hardware. On top of that, the development of a nuclear-powered satellite is bound to pose some daunting technical challenges that may further contribute to the delays.

One also wonders if the Russians are biting off more than they can chew by simultaneously working on two nuclear electric space tugs (Ekipazh and the one-megawatt TEM). An attempt to streamline this effort seems to have been made by giving KB Arsenal a leading role in both projects in 2014, making it possible to benefit from the company’s earlier experience in the field and infrastructure that it may already have in place to test related hardware. Still, the two projects use fundamentally different nuclear reactors built by different organizations.

The slow progress made in developing the one-megawatt gas-turbine reactor has left many wondering if it will ever fly in space. If Russia plans to use nuclear reactors solely for practical applications in Earth orbit, it may make more sense to abandon the gas-turbine reactor altogether and upgrade the capacity of Krasnaya Zvezda’s thermionic reactors. The company has already done conceptual work on thermionic reactors with a maximum capacity of several hundred kilowatts, even though their operational lifetime would be limited.[39] If this path is chosen, Ekipazh could serve as a testbed for all the nuclear reactors that Russia intends to fly in the near future. However, the country is unlikely to let all the money and effort invested in the one-megawatt TEM go to waste, even if its capabilities may not be needed until well into the 2030s or even later.
Project Ekipazh is discussed in this thread on the NASA Spaceflight Forum, which is updated with new information as it becomes available…….

October 14, 2019 - Posted by | Reference, Russia, space travel

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