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NASA Pushes for Nuclear-Powered Space Missions

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#1 Ghost in the Machine

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Posted 30 March 2018 - 07:01 AM

NASA's Nuclear Thermal Engine Is a Blast From the Cold War Past
Nuclear thermal propulsion, which was studied in the Cold War for space travel, could make a comeback to fly humans to Mars.
NASA studied "nuclear thermal propulsion systems" during the Cold War, but shelved the idea because it wasn't necessary.
Nuclear-powered spacecraft could send humans to Mars faster and allow them to abort a dangerous mission and return to Earth.
NASA has already hired a company to start working on a new NTP engine design.
To begin work on a new NTP rocket engine, NASA awarded an $18.8 million contract to BWXT Nuclear Energy in August 2017. BWXT, which has a long history of making nuclear fuel for the U.S. Navy, will design a nuclear reactor that uses low-enriched uranium nuclear fuel in the form of "Cermet" (ceramic metallic) rods. NASA has also partnered with Aerojet Rocketdyne to design an engine that could be mated to the reactor to produce thrust, and NASA will study cryogenic storage options for carrying liquid hydrogen propellant. Finally, NASA and BWXT will work to develop an exhaust capture system that would be used for future ground testing of the NTP engine.
A major advantage of NTP engines is that they can run much longer than chemical rocket engines, such as the Space Shuttle main engines or the Merlin engines on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets, and still produce significantly more thrust than an electric propulsion system, such as the ion thrusters used on satellites. NTP is a happy medium.
What is clear, however, is that NASA is turning back to nuclear fission technologies of decades past. With improved materials, a better understanding of engine systems, computer modeling, and a renewed vigor for space exploration, the nuclear technologies that were abandoned during the Cold War could make a comeback in the 21st century—for the colonization of Mars. 
NASA Pushes for Nuclear-Powered Space Missions
The space agency’s Kilopower project could end a half-century hiatus for U.S. reactors in space
The United States flew its first space reactor, SNAP-10A, in 1965. However, from the late 1970s through the early 2000s, space reactor development has been largely unsuccessful. "There hasn't been any tangible progress in fission reactor technology in decades," Dave Poston, chief reactor designer at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said during the conference. 
NASA is considering power sources like solar arrays, Mason said, but a number of factors make nuclear power a more attractive option. For one, the surface of Mars receives about one-third as much sunlight as Earth, and frequently sees dust storms that reduce this even further. Additionally, reactors are smaller and lighter than a comparable system of solar arrays and batteries, Mason said.
The reactors have a variety of applications besides human missions to Mars. They can power orbiters and landers, providing them with far more electricity than their predecessors. The reactors can also power electronic propulsion systems. NASA is also particularly interested in using Kilopower reactors for installations in lunar orbit and on the moon's surface, Mason said. 

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Posted 30 March 2018 - 07:31 AM

How far would the radiation cloud be if one of those things blew up when launching?

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Posted 30 March 2018 - 07:35 AM

Does it matter anymore? Consider how much radiation that has been released already on this planet...

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