Will Russia’s Next Rocket be Nuclear?

Russia’s space agency chief is proposing to build a new spaceship with a nuclear engine. Reportedly,
Anatoly Perminov told a government meeting Wednesday that the preliminary design could be ready by 2012. It would take about nine more years and 17 billion rubles (about $600 million or 400 million euros) to build the ship. This ambitious proposal is a stark contrast to the current state of the Russian space program.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev urged the Cabinet to consider providing the necessary funding. Russia is currently using 40-year old Soyuz booster rockets and capsules to send crews to the International Space Station.

Source: Yahoo News

24 Replies to “Will Russia’s Next Rocket be Nuclear?”

  1. No way is this a bad idea.

    This is the path NASA should have took in the 1970’s.

    If we want to get out among the stars we must be brave, bold and do things that seem a little crazy.

    I wish the Russians luck with this, there about the only ones with the balls to do it.

    The Americans still wouldn’t care about space, if it wasn’t for the Russians being innovative in doing something about getting up there.

  2. Hmmm… OF COURSE, this engine will be for use in SPACE only (?) And would be lofted to orbit aboard a more conventional booster.

    I wonder how this engine operates? Does it use the heat generated by a nuclear source to expand a liquid propellant like water into super-pressurized steam? We’ve begun to find sources of water everywhere it seems….

  3. It would probably be something like the NERVA nuclear rockets the US wanted to experiment with in the past.

    Nuclear power has always been a tempting option, but the problem is getting it to space.
    No one wants to live near a nuke launch pad, and even if its only used in space you’ve still got to put it on top a conventional rocket… which aren’t always reliable themselves.

    The Russians are far behind on the payload curve and I can see why they’d want to catch up, but this seems a rather extreme way to do it.

  4. Interesting, I previously thought very little of their Space program.
    But this kind of innovation definatley wins them brownie points with me. Lets see if they actually build it, good luck, Russia.

  5. Aqua: This design is a Nuclear Thermal Rocket, like you described.

    It’s about time an organization put the time and effort to make a flight worthy NTR.

    To all the naysayers that think this is a terrible idea, the US experimented with these types of systems as far back as the late 50s. First with the proof of concept KIWI and NRX series at Los Alamos, then Nasa with the NERVA type.

    Using just water, NTRs can theoretically achieve the same specific impulse as liquid hydrogen/oxygen rockets with only a slight loss of thrust. Using liquid hydrogen alone, that specific impulse could potentially be doubled.
    None of the test engines reached those numbers, but that was with 60s era materials science. Even so, The NERVAs were designed to be a swappable engine for the J-2 on the upper stages of the Saturn 5, before politics and fear of public perception got in the way. Though, it would be disingenuous to suggest there weren’t engineering difficulties. The main one being loss of reactor material during the violent super heating process. But, that’s a solvable problem with modern materials.

  6. The problem isn’t that. The problem is that there isn’t such a thing as a flawless technology. Failures will occur, rockets will explode, and radioactive fallout is a very real possible outcome of such failures.

  7. Why would I actively support Russia’s nuclear propulsion systems given their poor performance and frequent unplanned deorbits when these procedures are usually considered as a last try. Not to mention Russian atomic/nuclear reactors re-entering the earths’ atmosphere and possible irradiation Stratospheric or Tropospheric levels in Earths’ atmosphere seems like much more work must be completed before even contemplating the veracity of these claims.

  8. Use conventional rockets to launch the nuclear rocket components into orbit. Then use uranium mined by telepresence robots on the moon to ‘fuel up’? Of course the Uranium would HAVE to be launched off the Moon via a solar powered mag. rail torus….

    Just dreaming…

  9. I’m curious, if this thing malfunctioned or broke down would it be as bad as the 3 mile island disaster, what has more danger this or a fission reactor?
    just curious….
    Mr. Man

  10. Cause if its the same level of danger, then I don’t think anyone should get more worked up about this as opposed to any run of the mill fission reactor. Besides this does have the potiential to do some pretty cool things, unlike a fission reactor, which just does what any power plant does.
    Mr. Man

  11. Compared to a power plant reactor, there is certainly far less fissile material. By how much I don’t know.

    Also, in case of an accident during launch, only fresh fissile material would risk dissemination, which is not very radioactive. A totally different story in the case of reentry: the reactor would then be full of hell-hot fission products.

    I’m not looking at this technology with the friendliest eyes.
    For one thing, it is way too interesting for the kind of military space uses (SDI and avatars) the world is definitely better without.

  12. NTRs aren’t nuclear bombs like Dyson’s old Orion project, nor are they flying Chernobyls.

    One of the best recent designs is Pratt and Whitneys Triton system. It’s only around 5 meters in size, but tops out at 500 MWs. It’s “paper specific” impulse is around 900 seconds.

    Most of these are reactor designs use oxide elements capable of withstanding temps in excess of 3000 K and pressures above 200 atmospheres. During a catastrophic failure at launch, the material would probably remain intact and affect a small area. Even at unintended reentry, it may very well remain intact until impact and then also only affect a relatively small area.

    People have brought up the same concerns about RTGs on many occasions (most use plutonium) but if it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t have a vast variety of probes (Voyager, Viking, Pioneer, Galileo, New Horizons, Cassini, etc.) not to mention the SNAP-27 RTGs on Apollo 12-17, of which Apollo 13’s lies at the bottom of the ocean after reentry of the LEM.
    It’s not a direct comparison to NTRs because RTGs have considerably less fuel and aren’t reactors, but it gives a point of perspective.

  13. Correction on my last post. I said 500 MW for the Triton design, it should be MWt. Power output is less than 200 kWe.

  14. Fascinating book:

    To the end of the solar system: the story of the nuclear rocket.. By James A. Dewar


    The page I linked to (55) has a transcript of Andersen’s Strongly worded address to Congress. Its sums up NASA to this day in my mind.

    In reading the book I have discovered how far the US came to actually having a Spaceship design that could (overcome) the limitations of Chemical rockets.

    So congrats to the Russian’s, as in reading this book it stands out to me that the design of such a propulsion system is feasible. I immediately thought of the Vasmir or ION engines using nuclear plasma.

    This irrational fear we have of anything nuclear is not helping. The Universe is saturated by radiation. In C. Andersons words: “The Universe is nuclear and so we must use this energy if we are to go there”

    Ironically, if NASA had not formed then the AEC might well have finished its nuclear propulsion.

    What a different world it might be now.

  15. FRYAZINO (Moscow Region), October 28 (RIA Novosti) – The Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos has developed a design for a piloted spacecraft powered by a nuclear engine, the head of the agency said on Wednesday.

    “The project is aimed at implementing large-scale space exploration programs,” Anatoly Perminov said at a meeting of the commission on the modernization of the Russian economy.

    He added that the development of Megawatt-class nuclear space power systems (MCNSPS) for manned spacecraft was crucial for Russia if the country wanted to maintain a competitive edge in the space race, including the exploration of the Moon and Mars.

    Perminov said that the draft design of the spacecraft would be finalized by 2012, and the financing for further development in the next nine years would require an investment of at least 17 billion rubles (over $580 million).

    Anatoly Koroteyev, president of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics and head of the Keldysh research center, earlier said that the key scientific and technical problem in sending manned missions to the Moon and Mars was the development of new propulsion systems and energy supplies with a high degree of energy-mass efficiency.

    The current capabilities of the Russian space industry are clearly insufficient either to set up a permanent base on the Moon or accomplish an independent manned mission to Mars, he said.


  16. Damian:

    How rational is the following statement: “The sea is water and so we must use this energy if we are to go to the beach” ?

  17. most people who follow the russian space agency on a regular basis know that these things are proposed all of the time. until the test launch, if it ever comes, there is no need to take this seriously.

    nevertheless, i’d like to wish them a friendly “zhelayu udachi”.

    also, read this quote from the article:
    “This ambitious proposal is a stark contrast to the current state of the Russian space program…”

    doesn’t that comment come across as being kind of pissy? c’mon yahoo, stick to the facts and leave the bias to the reader.

  18. 🙂 Manu…

    Your counter analogy does not wash. (pun intended) Let me put it another way; If you wish to travel to the ocean depths, you should not fear the pressure.

    Space is filled with Radiation, yet for some strange reason people fear a propulsion system that is radioactive. A submarine is built to protect us from the Ocean Depths. A Space Craft will have to protect us from Radiation.

    The US Nuclear propulsion program was killed in the 70s. Materials science is so far ahead now that its
    worth revisiting. It still wont get us out of our gravity well, but it would make interplanetary trips much quicker. Manned or Unmanned. The Advantage Nuclear propulsion always offered was much heavier payloads into LEO as well. Liquid Hydrogen is much lighter then LOX.

    I have another comment awaiting Moderation. Perhaps this is more palatable?


  19. Damian:
    Thanks for the answer.
    My point was mostly criticism of the all too usual “irrational fear” dismissal of dissenting views.
    It was just too funny to have these words in the same sentence with the Anderson quote, which is definitely one of the less ‘rational’ thing I ever read. My analogy is very much to the point about this, I think.

    I _don’t_ have any specific concern about nuke engines for astronaut safety, not much about launch safety either, I certainly would love more-faster-better interplanetary _robotic_ programs in my lifetime and I agree nuke is probably the shortest way to it.
    But it’s obvious that this technology _will_ be used by the military -whichever the country – and that almost certainly means SDI, sooner or later. It means you have satellites you can repeatedly move from one orbit to another, chasing each other. What military would resist toying with this? I’m absolutely convinced the world is much better without it.
    Weighing those, sorry, no planets for me.

    And since we’re on this, I think there are very rational, badly addressed issues with nuclear power plants, the main of which being spent fuel waste disposal and fissile materials hijacking. Even though the amounts of material involved in a space program would be way lesser than any power plant, the second issue can’t be ignored.

  20. Just to be clear, I’m not against nuclear power and/or propulsion in space. It’s definitely the way to go. My beef with the Russian ‘plan’ relates to their apparent laxity of safe use of atomic reactors in the first place. Chernobyl and the Kursk come to mind immediately. Poorly shielded Soviet atomic reactors on satellites have been known to ‘blind’ US satellite sensors on occasion. I’m hoping that the situation Pvt. Pantzov mentions above and this is just more empty rhetoric from their government. But on a happy note, there is a trickle of research around the world studying the feaseability of atomic propulsion and atomic power generators.

  21. That advance is bold!

    Meanwhile, NASA does not even know whether ‘conventionally’ driven ships are allowed by budget constrains.

    There are tremendous advantages in nuclear driven ships. Every single space faring nation should ask itself: why not exploit this concept? What are the risks? I mean, what about contaminating our very own living space by crashing ships?

    The answer is very simple: an ‘overwatch’, a supervising organization, an enforcing institution which makes sure that strict security requirements are always fulfilled.

    Because our contemporary technology is capable of ‘bullet-proof’ launches of nuclear devices. We just need to ensure flawlessness!

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