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Nuclear Engines and Space Travel – A Potential Game-Changer in the Race to Space

A look at the exhaust ports of some rocket engines

Many advances have occurred in relation to space travel as of late. Despite years of delays, recent developments include the expanded use of the International Space Station. Likewise, private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX are accelerated successful space launches. But when it comes to rocket engines and long-distance space travel, there remain some significant barriers. The same rocket fuel used today is essentially the same that it was when man first landed on the moon. For many space engineers, the time for innovation in the field has been long overdue.

In this regard, it appears that there has now been a tremendous breakthrough in rocket engine technology. Nuclear engines have now been designed that could greatly improve long-distance space travel. In fact, nuclear engines could reduce travel time by more than half in most cases. This new development opens the door for potential space exploration of Mars and other destinations. And with both NASA and SpaceX planning long-distance space travel to Mars by 2024, the timing couldn’t be better.

“…We’ve been using the same damn rocket technology since Apollo, and it’s time to grow up and say the magic term: nuclear. There I said it; nuclear.” – Daniel Goldin, NASA’s Administrator from 1992 and 2001

Nuclear Engines Versus Traditional Rocket Engines

In space exploration today, rocket engines primarily utilize chemical fuel to propel rockets into outer space. But chemical fuel, like liquid oxygen, has its limitations. The primary one involves its barriers to long-distance space travel. Using traditional rocket engines with chemical combustion, it has been estimated a trip to Mars could take nine months. While this may seem feasible, in reality, it’s not. Live space crews in space that long would be exposed to significant cosmic radiation. Since cosmic radiation causes brain damage and memory loss, safety concerns represent a major hurdle using chemical fuel.

A second-stage space craft disengaging from its stage one
Long-distance space travel might be science fiction for now, but nuclear engines could soon make it a reality.

Nuclear engines, on the other hand, have the opportunity to drastically reduce the time of long-distance space travel. In essence, nuclear engines use thermal energy to propel the rocket instead of chemical fuel. As a result, the time of travel is much shorter, and thus, exposure to cosmic radiation much less. Of course, the idea of using nuclear engines has been around since the early 1960s. But developing nuclear engines that were light enough and safe enough has been the primary challenge. But fortunately, one company now reports that an effective nuclear engine design now exists.

“Our engine maximizes the use of proven technology, eliminates failure modes of previous NTP concepts, and has a specific impulse more than twice that of chemical systems.” – Michael Eades, PhD., Principal Engineer, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC), Technology Division

USNC’s Innovative Breakthrough

USNC is based in Seattle, Washington, and it has two divisions…technology and power. Its power division is involved in the use of nuclear engines within energy facilities. Its technology division is more concerned with developing advanced nuclear technologies. Fortunately, the two divisions share a great deal of information about design and safety. And this knowledge led to USNC-tech’s ability to design a thermal nuclear engine that has great potential for space travel. Being able to overcome issues related to both weight and safety, its Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) engine is truly innovative.

The company’s NTP engine uses a reprocessed variant of nuclear material as its fuel source. This fuel is labeled HALEU, which stands for high assay, low enriched uranium. The uranium is enriched to only 20 percent, and then it is packed into small coated fragments of zirconium carbonate. These ceramic microcapsules enable nuclear material to work at higher temperatures and be much more efficient. At the same time, these encapsulated fuel products are much more stable, offering greater safety. And best of all, they result in more rapid propulsion which dramatically reduced long-distance space travel times.

“Key to USNC-Tech’s design is a conscious overlap between terrestrial and space reactor technologies. This allows us to leverage the advancements in nuclear technology and infrastructure from terrestrial systems and apply them to our space reactors.” – Paolo Venneri, CEO, USNC, Technology Division

Just in Time for Long-Distance Space Travel

Over the last decade, the race for space has heated up significantly. While NASA has forged public-private partnerships in this regard, other countries are making progress as well. China’s space exploration program is advancing rapidly with some fearing they may overtake U.S. dominance. Likewise, the European Space Agency is investing significant resources in space travel. And even countries not typically known for space exploration, like the United Kingdom and India, are involved. Understanding this, not only is there a race toward long-distance space travel and exploration. There is also a race to develop the technology needed to do so.

As noted, NASA engineers have been pursuing nuclear engines since 1961. The Nuclear Energy for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) was organized that year. But progress has been slow because of the technology barriers described. However, NASA has announced it has plans to send a live crew to Mars by 2024. Elon Musk has cited the same year for SpaceX to do the same. But both organizations acknowledge that nuclear engines may be essential to achieve these goals. If USNC-tech’s thermal nuclear engines are safe and effective, this would be a game-changer. It might be just enough to launch U.S. space exploration well out in front of the competition.

The Reality of Long-Distance Space Travel

Planned space explorations of Mars with live crews likely represent how nuclear engines would be utilized in the near term. But advances in this area of technology could impact space travel in many ways. Thermal nuclear engines could allow space exploration beyond Mars. Recent discoveries concerning Venus potentially reflect other long-distance space travel pursuits in the future. And space installations beyond earth’s orbit might also benefit from these recent technological advances. If USNC’s prototypes are eventually approved, this indeed could usher in a completely new era of space exploration.


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