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Russia Thinks It Can Use Nukes to Fly to Mars in 45 Days—If It Can Find the Rubles

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Jun 23, 2013
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During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had over 30 fission powered satellites, like this Rorsat. SMITHSONIAN/DIA

YOU DO NOT want to go to Mars. At least, not with today’s engines powering the trip. A chemically propelled voyage would take 18 months, one way. During which time any combination of boredom, radiation poisoning, and cancer will likely kill you. Suppose you make it? Congratulations on being the first Martian to die of old age, because a return trip from the Red Planet is currently impossible without using wishful logistics like fuel harvesting.

The Russians think they can do better. Last week, their national nuclear corporation Rosatom announced it isbuilding a nuclear engine that will reach Mars in a month and a half—with fuel to burn for the trip home. Russia might not achieve its goal of launching a prototype by 2025. But that has more to do with the country’s financial situation (not great) than the technical challenges of a nuclear engine.

Soviet scientists actually solved many of those challenges by 1967, when they started launching fission-powered satellites. Americans had their own program, called SNAP-10A, which launched in in 1965. Ah, the Cold War.

Both countries prematurely quashed their nuclear thermal propulsion programs (Though the Soviets’ lasted into the 1980s). “Prematurely” because those fission systems were made for relatively lightweight orbital satellites—not high-thrust, interplanetary vessels fattened with life support for human riders. Nonetheless, “A nuclear contraption should not be too far off, not too complicated,” says Nikolai Sokov, senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, CA. “The really expensive thing will be designing a ship around these things.”

Nuclear thermal is but one flavor of nuclear propulsion. Rosatom did not respond to questions about their system’s specs, but its announcement hints at some sort of thermal fission. Which is to say, the engine would generate heat by splitting atoms and use that heat to burn hydrogen or some other chemical. Burning stuff goes one direction, spaceship goes the other.

The principle isn’t too far from chemical propulsion. The fastest chemical rockets produce thrust by igniting one type of chemical (the oxidizer) to burn another (the propellant), creating thrust. Chemical or otherwise, rocket scientists rate propulsion methods based on a metric called Specific Impulse, “Which means, if I have a pound of fuel, for how many seconds will that pound of fuel create a pound of thrust,” says Robert Kennedy, a systems engineer for Tetra Tech in Oak Ridge, TN, and former congressional fellow for the US House of Representatives’s space subcommittee. For instance, one pound of the chemical mixture powering theSpace Launch System—NASA’s in utero rocket for the agency’s planned mission to Mars—produces about 269 seconds of thrust in a vacuum.

But the outcomes of those two methods are radically different, because chemical rocketry has a catch-22. The faster or farther you want to go, the more fuel you need to pack. The more fuel you pack, the heavier your rocket. And the heavier your rocket, the more fuel you need to bring…

Eventually, the equation balancing thrust to weight plateaus, which is why a year and a half is around the lower time limit for sending a chemically propelled, crewed mission to Mars. (Until Elon Musk’s spiritual descendants build asteroid-mined interplanetary fuel stations.) And that’s not even considering the incredible cost of launching fuel—about $3,000 a pound. Expensive, but the politics surrounding nuclear make it a harder sell in America, so NASA is stuck with the Space Launch System (and its thirsty fuel tanks) for now.

The engines the Soviets and Americans were developing during the Space Race, on the other hand, had at least double a chemical rocket’s specific impulse. Modern versions could likely do even better. Which means spaceships would be able to carry a lot more fuel, and therefore fire their thrusters for a longer portion of the trip to Mars (bonus: artificial gravity!). Even better, a thermal fission spaceship would have enough fuel to decelerate, go into Martian orbit, and even return to Earth.

Calling for a fission mission to Mars is great for inspiring space dreamers, but Russia’s planned engine could have practical, near-term applications. Satellites need to fire their thrusters every so often to stay in their ideal orbits (Also, to keep from crashing to Earth). Sokov thinks the main rationale for developing a nuclear thermal engine would be to allow for more of these orbital corrections, significantly increasing a satellite’s working lifespan. Fission power would also give probes more maneuverability. “One civilian application is to collect all the space junk,” says Sokov. “You are free to think of other, perhaps not as innocent applications.”

Russia may have the will to go nuclear, but it probably lacks the means. Rosatom has budgeted roughly 15 billion rubles on the project, which began in 2010 and is scheduled to have a launch-ready vehicle by 2025. That’s about $700 million: eyebrow-raisingly cheap for a 15-year long space project. For reference, just the rocket part of NASA’s Space Launch System is projected to cost nearly $10 billion.

And those 15 billion rubles don’t include the cost of launch, which could be why Rosatom made its 6-weeks-to-Mars announcement last week. “Going public can serve a number of purposes, including getting funding, increasing visibility, things like that from politicians, readers, and others who would like this visionary thing,” says Sokov. Rosatom plans to have a land-based test reactor by 2018.

If the Russian Federation does succeed, they won’t be stopped by international treaties—which only apply to nuclear weapons. That does not mean the engine would be completely safe, however. Things launched from rockets do not always make it to space, and things in orbit sometimes fall to Earth. In 1978, a nuclear-powered Soviet satellite crashed in northern Canada, spewing radioactive waste over nearly 50,000 square miles. But listen, tovarisch: One does not make omelette without breaking eggs, no?
Russia Thinks It Can Use Nukes to Fly to Mars in 45 Days—If It Can Find the Rubles | WIRED
 

AZADPAKISTAN2009

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A 6 Month trip to Mars is not difficult provided the Rocket is large and has lot of room.
There is ample supply of walking dead Season Episodes.

The only thing that makes travel in space boring is the tiny little itcy bitcy capsules , if the size of the rocket and space available is at least size of a football field , the trip mars can be quite enjoyable

a) Free movies , tv shoes
b) Books and material to read
c) Small on board farming project to grow fresh vegetables
d) Video game supplies
c) Ample supply of can food or frozen food packs (which taste quite good once you microwave it)

The construction of rocket should be a project where 6-7 Rockets combine in space to form a much larger ship together with Living cabins flown separately and combined in space

If the Power plant was nuclear , the weight of fuel can be removed from the equation as nuclear plants would produce electrical energy , and the extra space can be used to store food & water generation machines
 
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Hamartia Antidote

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A 6 Month trip to Mars is not difficult provided the Rocket is large and has lot of room.
There is ample supply of walking dead Season Episodes.

The only thing that makes travel in space boring is the tiny little itcy bitcy capsules , if the size of the rocket and space available is at least size of a football field , the trip mars can be quite enjoyable

a) Free movies , tv shoes
b) Books and material to read
c) Small on board farming project to grow fresh vegetables
d) Video game supplies
c) Ample supply of can food or frozen food packs (which taste quite good once you microwave it)

The construction of rocket should be a project where 6-7 Rockets combine in space to form a much larger ship together with Living cabins flown separately and combined in space

If the Power plant was nuclear , the weight of fuel can be removed from the equation as nuclear plants would produce electrical energy , and the extra space can be used to store food & water generation machines
Well if only things were that simple. To protect people from radiation they either are going to have to launch a ton of shielding or confine people to a small heavily shielded area.
 

AZADPAKISTAN2009

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Well the Shielded cabins is not such a difficult task

I envision , the Mars Mission would have the 12 stages may be span over year (Preparation stage)

Stage 1 to Stage 6 , "6 Large Modules would be assembled in Space"
Good old Lego Design that Dock and fit together and lock in

Stage 6-10 : Would involve the engineers/astronaut Going inside the Modules to check for wiring run diagnostic checks / Power checks , locking in the structures from inside (The vehicle is docked in earth's orbit)

Let the system Self run for 2-3 Months while orbiting Earth

Stage 11: Fly in 2 Power plants to power the Structure, one power plant used , and other acts as backup, not turned on unless needed in emergency

Stage 12: Fly in crew , turn on the power station (Nuclear) gives you heat / electricity for 5 years , we know mars missions needs power for 6 months to 1 year

Go make a run around Mars and bring back the structure put it in orbit around earth , Astronauts get a pick up once back on earth orbit on a smaller Vehicle and land , leaving the Space Ship in space for future trips


Assembly of modules in space (Stage 1-6)
Carry small completed modules (Tested 100% on earth) one by one in space and keep connecting them until you have a large structure, and the design should have plug and run power plant in end to push the vehicle with nuclear power (no fuel issues)

CREW TRANSPORTATION VEHICLE
(Remains in space orbits earth / Mars)



This whole piece is 1 Structure (8 Modules), with its power plant in end and command and control in front

Similarly it would be wise 3 such structures are assembled in space, and then connected with each other so the 3 are parallel to each other , linked with internal passage

Crew can live in 2 of the structures and have third as a backup for Mission, In case there is critical failure

If the plan is to Land on Mars and return back at least to the orbit, a Lander could be made for landing and then return to dock with space structure in Mars orbit from where the return trip is smooth ride

Ideally for Mars missions 2 Lander would have to be carried, 1 for Landing and 1 as a backup remains in orbit around Mars , in case it is needed (Minimum lander requirement)



IDEALLY:

If folks are serious they can pack 6 Landers in 2 traditional Rockets and send a separate missions to just put these 6 Lander permanently in Mars orbit, so when the crew arrives the can
be assured there are 6-8 Landers for multiple landing and docking back to orbit vehicles present

This mission does not even need people in the ship , it can be sent traditional means automated control from earth- get to mars deploy the lander in space / orbit

The lander don't need to be towed to Mars by the Crew Transportation ship


Over 10 years;
The Crew Transportation Ship , can tow Habitable Modules for Landing on Mars
These would land once reaching Mars Orbits, UAV type approach with crew in Mars Orbit so there is no time delay related issue



Over 10 Years hopefully 100 such living modules would be on surface of Mars
 
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Desertfalcon

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I would think that whoever is the first to go, you wouldn’t want to just land for a short visit and then return. I mean, that is a loooooong trip, just to collect some soil samples and plant the flag.
 

C130

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so are they going to detonate nuclear bombs to push the spacecraft or is this just a nuclear powered ion thruster o_O

I think a even better and safer way to reach speeds fast enough to get to mars and other bodies in the solar system is with a solar sail along with a laser
 

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