Russia Plans Nuclear Rocket Engine for Deep Space Exploration

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Header Image: Arrival at Mars by SMPritchard/DeviantArt 

Prototype Nuclear Rocket Engine Part of Ten-Year Development Plan

Roscosmos plans nuc

Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, recently presented its ten-year development plan to the Russian government -- the 2016-2025 Federal Space Program.

While the plan seemingly eliminates previously announced manned lunar exploration plans, it included somthing completely new ...

The construction of a prototype nuclear rocket engine that uses a reactor to propel it into deep space.

In a statement to Izvestiya, Andrey Ivanov, a spokesman for Rosatom, Russia's State Atomic Energy Corporation, said:

All the work on the construction of the atomic engine is ongoing, in accordance with planned timescales. We can say with a large amount of certainty that the work will be completed within the provided timescale.

Andrey Ionin of Russia's Tsiolkovskiy Cosmonautical Academy told Izvestiya that the program envisions a wider plan for space exploration, which will guide the direction of the engine's construction. As he said:

It is clear that an atomic engine is necessary only for exploration of distant space. Projects like the creation of an atomic engine have to take place in the context of a larger project, in order to precisely understand what exactly we are making such a powerful energy source for.

In fact, some aspects of the engine's construction are already underway, as Rosatom announced Monday. According to Andrey Ivanov:

Two important stages of the project have recently been carried out. Testing of the reactor's casing has been successfully completed. This testing subjected the casing to excessive pressure and took 3D measurements of the metal, welding and conical intersection.

​Efforts have also been proceeding on the development of the fuel elements as well. As Ivanov added:

A unique fuel element has been constructed which allows the engine to work in high temperatures, in large temperature gradients, and high doses of radiation.

Nuclear rocket engines are not new. The United States worked on the concept for over two decades in the 1950's and '60's as part of the NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) program.

NERVA Nuclear rocket engine

NERVA Nuclear rocket engine

NERVA was a nuclear thermal rocket engine development program that was a joint effort of the U.S. Atomic Energy and NASA that was managed by the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office  (SNPO) until the program, and the office, ended in 1972.

But that wasn't the end of nuclear energy for space vehicles.

Since the 1960s, long-term, unmanned, space missions have used Radioisotope Thermal Generators (RTG) for power where solar cells are not practical.

Essentially, RTG power systems are atomic batteries. They produce electricity from the natural decay of plutonium-238 -- a non-weapons-grade form of plutonium. Heat given off by the natural decay of this isotope is converted into electricity, providing constant power.​

Space probes such as NASA's Voyager and Pioneer, as well as the Curiosity rover, all use Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTG) as their power source

When it was launched in 1977 Voyager 1's three RTG's produced about 470 watts of electric power, with the power output degrading over time.

Source: Sputnik News

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