Nuclear Power In Space

Nuclear power for spaceflight has been a bugaboo in the American space program for decades. I believe it was the SALT II Treaty of 1967 that banned the use of nuclear weapons in the upper atmosphere and low earth orbit. Since then, the nuclear incidents of Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) have driven home the need for nuclear safety in the areas of energy production and the environment. But as far as space exploration is concerned, especially in the U.S., things have gotten out of hand.

The recent proclamations of China, Russia, India, and yes, America to return to explore the Moon, Mars and the rest of the Solar System using human beings have offered up the old questions of human durability and travel times between planets. Various propulsion methods have been suggested and designed. But guess what the good ol’ U.S. decided to use for it’s return to the Moon. That’s right, chemical rockets. With subtle improvements of course, like using cheaper fuels like kerosene or methane. The only differences being the way that the chemicals are stored, like better cryogenic systems, meaning the stuff is stored colder. Wow, big deal! Colder cheaper fuel with the oxydizer, liquid oxygen, gets you the same horsepower as the liquid hydrogen, which is more expensive to produce. Impressed yet?

According to Yury Zaitsev of the Russian newspaper RIA Novosti, nuclear power will eventually power future Russian flights:

Estimates made by researchers over recent years show that nuclear power, if used in long-distance space voyages, will save considerable funds and shorten interplanetary journeys. In a Mars mission a nuclear-powered engine would cut flight time almost by two thirds, compared with a jet engine using ordinary chemical fuel. The rim of the solar system could be reached within three, rather than 10, years. Nuclear plants can be used not only as sources of electric power, but also as sources of heat to support life and productive activities at bases beyond Earth.

Russia and the United States have laid a good groundwork for progress in this field. But Russia leads in such key factors as maximum hydrogen temperature and specific thrust impulse. In fact, it is the only country in the world that has a hands-on technology for building space-based nuclear reactor plants.

The U.S. only once tested a nuclear reactor like the Soviet Topaz unit. It was in 1965. The reactor lasted 43 days, although the satellite on which it was installed is still in orbit as part of space junk. Russia has launched about 40 spacecraft with nuclear plants aboard. Most of them were used for spying purposes and, once activated, stayed in low near-Earth orbits for several months on end.

These small nuclear power units are safer and more reliable than the old 1960s designs that were previously proposed. Reduced travel times to the planets are more cost effective when using small, modern nuclear power cells. I realize radiation is always in back of people’s minds, especially Americans, almost to the point of pathology I think. We want cheap energy to run our toys and lifestyle, which means burning fossil fuels and polluting the air. But then we complain (or ignore it as official government policy) to the rest of the world that there’s global warming, give Al Gore a Nobel Prize and tell Third World countries they can’t burn oil or coal to fuel their rising economies! What’s up with that? A bit more than a “little” hypocracy I’d say! It must be because we know what nuclear radiation does to people. Hiroshima, Nagasoki anyone? Add guilt to that also.

Time has passed for that crap now. While solar power satellites in orbit beaming down energy to solar energy plantations are great, they would only supply 10-20% of our needs. Modern compact nuclear power cells using helium-3 as fuel are outstanding stop-gap powerplants for both space travel and here on Earth. Until we can figure out that pesky hydrogen fusion issue anyway.

And remember you nay-sayers, if Americans won’t/don’t do it, for sure China, Russia and India will. Think about that when you’re peddling your bike-powered electric generator to charge up your cell-phone!

Space Daily article

16 responses

  1. I know that some of my readers wouldn’t mind using peddle-pumped electrical generators. To them I say, “Go right ahead”. The homesteader lifestyle is cool, but it takes years of practice.

    Me, I like alot of modern toys, though I enschew some (cell-phones, RFID chips, spy cameras/eyes, computer cams, etc.)

    But I’m rooting for antigravity “Hov-Arounds”! 😎

  2. Good point, dad 😉
    I hope that nuclear generators in space will be used to power a field propulsion spacecraft, rather than a rocket 😉 NASA must either change it’s policy or vanish before 2020! If not, we’ll continue to dream for space travel forever 😡

  3. That just might happen if what I’ve been reading lately is true. NASA just might vanish for lack of funding. They’ve already been talking about pushing the Moon project back five years and they’re cutting back COTS money for private enterprise to enter the space business.

    The pols are shooting themselves in the foot and self-destructing. The Chinese and Russians are counting on it.

  4. I”m not enthused with the idea of nuclear rocket technology mainly due to the perennial radioactive contamination problems associated with nuclear power useage of any kind. So now we’ll end up polluting space with radioactive space junk/debris…no?! Yep, the only thing it seems the human race excels at is pollution…!

    I thought I’d provide an edifying link discussing the various propulsion schemes for a Mars mission. I’m personally for using ION engines. The link I’m providing will give a decent explanation about all the propulsion systems that are being considered for the mission.

    Carl Nemo **==

  5. I’m disappointed of the X Prize foundation 😡 —>
    They do not support the field propulsion technology…
    I have sended an email to Ansari last month, but no response… They’ll continue to invest in old rocket methods, others too 😦

    One day, not far in the future, someone will proof them wrong! Antigravity won’t be sci-fi anymore! It’s the key to stop the Global warming and to solve the population issue!

  6. Carl: Compact nuclear powered fuel cells can be clean tech. The nuclear reactions are an efficient way to obtain the hydrogen for the fuel cell. You’re taking the same position all Americans think about nuclear energy; “Oh my god, radioactivity for millions of years and there’s no way to contain it!” That is a fallacy. Yes, there’s a danger that mass amounts of uncontrolled nuclear reactions could kill alot of people, but so can’t carbon and the “global warming” everyone is clammering about. And modern nuclear technology is a whole lot safer than a coal-fired power plant.

    People have to make a choice and quick. We don’t live in a perfect world. I would’ve preferred that the government adopted Jimmy Carter’s solar power plan and all that. Instead we got St. Ronnie Raygun and more oil, oil, oil and more greed, greed, greed.

    If people hold to the paradigm that there’s climate change happening, then something needs to be done now. Using nuclear power to manufacture hydrogen en masse to make fuel cells and to create an infrastructure to support it makes sense. It doesn’t make carbon so it meets the “green” criteria.

    The government isn’t going to finance mass rocket launches to put solar power satellites in orbit. Not gonna happen. Especially when they’re already talking about a new administration cutting back on NASA funding.

    Either that or deny there’s climate change and wait until the crash happens. Because like I said, China, Russia and India aren’t going to be bashful about using that kind of tech.

    Better brush off those “Muzzy” tapes to learn Asian languages. We might need them!

  7. Hi dad2059…

    Thanks for the feedback on this article. I’m still a proponent of building massive ground-based PV (photovoltaic) farms on the earth in the high solar irradiation zones. The result is clean power direct from the sun to the peoples of earth. Cracking H20 for a hydrogen byproduct would be doable, non-polluting with a zero carbon footlprint except for the manufacture of the PV’s themselves. Right now PV’s are hovering in the 18 percent efficiency range and I’ve read some articles concerning the future of nanotech producing PV materials with a 90 percent plus efficiency in convering sunlight to electricity. A few articles back I supplied a link with a worldwide map showing irradiation zones that have about 350 watts/sq meter of solar radiation striking the surface with almost zero overcast days. The farms can also be designed to track the sun during it’s transit across the sky to allow for maximum gain throughout the day too. There’s various schemes available for storing large amounts of energy during the nighttime hours. Of course there would still be a residual grid driven by conventional fossil fuels until they are phased out. Eventually nuclear fusion should become a reality then the issue of the problem of storing massive amounts of radioactive contaminants for the ages will no longer be an issue as with fission reactive generators.

    ***** please take a look at the maplink

    I’m somewhat confused when you reference NASA solar powered satellites in orbit? In fact that’s how they generate power for their respective missions via solar arrays along with hybrid fuel cell technology. The ISS uses a solar array that’s constantly tracking the sun for maximum efficiency.

    There was a scheme at one time to launch satellites that were huge reflectors to beam sunlight down to the dark regions of the earth onto PV arrays to generate power, but again, to me it sounded like more crackpot schemes initiated by our “science welfare” community.

    Going to Mars isn’t a cheap proposition. I’ve heard figures as high as two trillion bucks in terms of R&D, along with the final engineering, and mission requirements for the project.

    This country is already awash to the gunnels with unpayble debt to the tune of 9.7 trillion with 12 trillion projected by 2012. This tax and spend nonsense cannot continue. In fact as I write this the entire worlds financial markets are unraveling as the central banks worldwide are running their printing presses a warp speed to prop up the unfolding crisis as a function of the Financial Weapons of Mass Destruction meltdown, aka as “unregulated derivatives”; i.e, the “hot-money” markets fo the world. These are side bets between major center banks, brokerage houses etc. These derivative are not regulated, nor is there any oversight unlike the commodities traded on the Chicago Board of Trade, the NY Mercantile Exchange etc. It’s estimated now that 415 trillion monetary units of the major world currencies are threatened by this meltdown.

    The cause;ie., criminal negligence on the part of the Federal Reserve and other major regulating agencies concerning the housing market debacle. I hate to say it, but…no Virginia, there ain’t no bucks to go to Mars”… : |

    China will probably be the first nation to land on Mars. They are awash in surplus bucks to the tune of 1.6 trillion and their surplus is growing all the time as Americans continue to shop until they drop as if there’s no tomorrow. Swipe goes the card…”ka-ching”…another day older and deeper in debt, so goes the song. Our trade deficit is an abomination too pushing the one trillion mark; meaning we consume far more than we produce by an astronomical amount of money on an annual basis!

    Carl Nemo **==

  8. Carl, I do agree with you 🙂
    Maybe when ITER becomes a reality, moon mission will be necessary, because the fusion fuel – Helium 3. When people go there to build mining bases, we’ll begin our real space travel 🙂

  9. Carl: I referenced NASA solar power sats, my mistake, it’s the Pentagon who wants the solar power sats. But NASA is supposed to launch them, not likely as we’ve been pointing out in this thread, “Ol’ Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard…”, you know the rest.

    Hey, I agree with you, I love the solar energy farms. The idea started during Carter’s Administration over thirty years ago. If we’d have done it then, or started at least, we wouldn’t be discussing this. That was the whole idea, get away from the Middle East bullsh*t.

    But unfortunately the elitists had other ideas. And the bastards didn’t do anyone any favors in the long run, here or the poor schmucks over there.

  10. Lubo: You’re a riot dude! Hey, if we can get the uber-government to admit they have anti-grav tech, it’ll be a miracle!

    There’s so much disinformation out there that it boggles the mind and the Internet is awash in it. So far, if we go by the mainstream data, the USA ain’t gonna do any space travel for a long time after Bu$hco leaves. The Moon and Mars might very possibly go to the Asians/Russians.

    But if you believe the underground news, the USA and other nations already have tech that’s able to get us around the Solar System and beyond. The mainstream is only window dressing.

  11. Hi dad2059,
    here’s wishing you and your close ones much merry making and all the best for the festive season

  12. Certainly, dad, but how are we going to force them to tell us the truth?! There must be done something more than just be noisy in the web… but what 😕

  13. We’ve had nuclear powered submarines for 40 years and by all accounts, they work fine and the men who serve on them aren’t placed at anymore risk than staffers who run nuclear energy facilities.

    If we’re serious about space exploration beyond the space shuttle and a return to the moon in 2020, then we must begin to think outside the box and come up with new and more efficient ways for propulsion.

    I’d rather have nuclear energy used for space than for energy on earth.

  14. Lubo: If I could figure it out too dude, I would! Maybe being noisy is a first good step?

    Q9: Hi Doc! The same to you my friend. I loath the crass commercialism, but I love the family coming together. That’s the important thing in celebrating Yule.

    Christopher: Y’know, that’s a valid point and one that nobody else pointed out. Submarine technology is very useful in figuring all of this out. My buddy Q9 above usually points that out to me.

    Must be the reason I don’t consider it is because of the military aspect. Even though I’m a military vet, I’ll always think of space exploration as a peaceful endeavor.

    But it probably won’t end up that way.

  15. Hi dad!

    When they open up the solar system for commercial business, be it with nuclear power or free energy; rocket or propellantless field propulsion, then the military will go to the stars without anyone to suspect it. Which means – they will always be one step in front of us, won’t they 😉

  16. Yup. Probably closer to two steps!

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