Military Review

Nuclear technology for space

32

Demonstration of the SNAP 3 generator to the US leadership, 1959. Photo by US Department of Energy


Already in the early stages of the development of the rocket and space industry, the first proposals for the use of various nuclear technologies appeared. Various technologies and units were proposed and worked out, but only some of them reached actual operation. In the future, the introduction of fundamentally new solutions is expected.

First in space


In 1954, the first radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG or RTG) was created in the USA. The main element of the RTG is a radioactive isotope that decays naturally with the release of thermal energy. With the help of a thermoelement, thermal energy is converted into electrical energy, which is supplied to consumers.

The main advantage of the RTG is the possibility of long-term operation with stable characteristics and without maintenance. The service life is determined by the half-life of the selected isotope. At the same time, such a generator is characterized by low efficiency and output power, and also needs biological protection and appropriate safety measures. However, RTGs have found application in a number of areas with special requirements.

Nuclear technology for space

Preparations for the launch of the Tansit 4A satellite with the SNAP 3B RTG. Photo by NASA

In 1961 in the USA, a SNAP 3B type RTG was created with 96 g of plutonium-238 in a capsule. In the same year, the Transit 4A satellite, equipped with such a generator, went into orbit. It became the first spacecraft in Earth orbit to use nuclear fission energy. In 1965, the USSR launched the Kosmos-84 satellite, its first Orion-1 RTG device using polonium-210.

Subsequently, the two superpowers actively used RTGs to create space technology for various purposes. For example, a number of Mars rovers in recent decades have been powered by the decay of radioactive elements. Similarly, power is supplied to missions moving away from the Sun.


NERVA engine diagram. Photo by NASA

For more than half a century, RTGs have proven their capabilities in a number of areas, incl. in the space industry, although they remain a specialized tool for specific tasks. However, in such a role, radioisotope generators contribute to the development of the industry, research, etc.

Nuclear rocket


Soon after the start of space programs, the leading countries began to study the issue of creating a nuclear rocket engine. Various architectures have been proposed with different operating principles and different benefits. For example, in the American project Orion, a spacecraft was proposed that uses a shock wave of low-power nuclear warheads to accelerate. Also, designs of a more familiar look were being worked out.

In the fifties and sixties, NASA and related organizations developed the NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) engine. Its main component was an open-cycle nuclear reactor. The working fluid in the form of liquid hydrogen had to be heated from the reactor and ejected through the nozzle, creating thrust. A nuclear engine of this kind was superior in design performance to traditional chemical fuel systems, although it was more dangerous in operation.


RD-0410 engine. Photo KBKHA

The NERVA project was brought to the test of various components and the entire assembly. During the tests, the engine was turned on 28 times and worked for almost 2 hours. The characteristics were confirmed; there were no significant issues. However, the project did not receive further development. At the turn of the sixties and seventies, the American space program was seriously curtailed, and the NERVA engine was abandoned.

In the same period, similar work was carried out in the USSR. A promising project proposed the use of an engine with a reactor that heats the working fluid in the form of liquid hydrogen. In the early sixties, a reactor was created for such an engine, and later work began on the rest of the units. For a long time, testing and development of various devices continued.


The alleged appearance of the Prometheus system in configuration for a flight to Jupiter. Photo by NASA

In the seventies, the finished RD-0410 engine passed a series of firing tests and confirmed its main characteristics. However, the project did not receive further development due to the high complexity and risks. The domestic rocket and space industry continued to use "chemical" engines.

Space tugs


In the course of further research and design work in the United States and in our country, they came to the conclusion that it is inexpedient to use engines of the NERVA or RD-0410 type. In 2003, NASA began testing a fundamentally new architecture for a spacecraft with a nuclear power plant. The project was named Prometheus.

The new concept proposed the construction of a spacecraft with a full-fledged reactor on board, providing electricity, as well as an ion jet engine. Such an apparatus could find application in long-distance research missions. However, the development of "Prometheus" proved to be prohibitively expensive, and the results were expected only in the distant future. In 2005, the project was closed for lack of prospects.


An early version of the TEM complex. RSC Energia graphics

In 2009, the development of a similar product began in Russia. The "Transport and Power Module" (TEM) or "space tug" should receive a nuclear power plant of a megawatt class, coupled with an ID-500 ion engine. The spacecraft is proposed to be assembled in Earth orbit and used for transporting various loads, accelerating other spacecraft, etc.

The TEM project is highly complex, which affects its cost and terms of implementation. In addition, there were numerous organizational problems. Nevertheless, by the mid-tenths, individual components of the TEM were taken out for testing. The work continues and in the future may lead to the appearance of a real "space tug". The construction of such an apparatus is planned for the second half of the twenties; commissioning - in 2030

In the absence of serious difficulties and timely fulfillment of all plans, the TEM can become the world's first product of its class brought to service. In this case, there is a certain margin of time, while excluding the possibility of the timely appearance of competitors.


Late version of TEM. Roscosmos graphics

Perspectives and limitations


Nuclear technologies are of great interest to the rocket and space industry. First of all, power plants of different classes can be useful. RTGs have already found applications and are firmly established in some areas. Full-fledged nuclear reactors are not yet used due to their large dimensions and mass, but there are already developments on ships with such equipment.

For several decades, the leading space and nuclear powers have worked out and tested in practice a number of original ideas, determined their viability and found the main areas of application. Such processes continue to this day, and, probably, will soon give new results of a practical nature.

It should be noted that nuclear technologies have not become widespread in the space sector, and this situation is unlikely to change. At the same time, they turn out to be useful and promising in certain areas and projects. And it is in these niches that the available potential is already being realized.
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  1. stalki
    stalki 24 August 2020 18: 22 New
    +4
    It should be noted that nuclear technologies have not become widespread in the space sector, and this situation is unlikely to change. At the same time, they turn out to be useful and promising in certain areas and projects.
    Well, it will not change at the expense of this is not a fact, who could have assumed 200 years ago that cars will completely replace horse transport? We'd better wait, it's all very interesting.
    1. Simargl
      Simargl 24 August 2020 19: 06 New
      +4
      Quote: stalki
      Who could have guessed 200 years ago that cars would completely replace horse-drawn transport?
      200 years ago, very few people could imagine a car.
      Yes, and the trains were ... nothing.
      Now, if 150 years ago we say that the train will travel with the speed of a bullet from a revolver ...
    2. Civil
      Civil 24 August 2020 19: 09 New
      +3
      If only at the start he did not fall ... but so, very promising
      1. garik77
        garik77 24 August 2020 23: 24 New
        +1
        NRE does not imply its use as a starting stage. The launch into orbit will continue to be powered by chemical engines (LPRE / TTRD), and there, in space, with the help of a nuclear stage, spacecraft will be able to accelerate to speeds that are currently unattainable in tens and even hundreds of kilometers per second.
        1. dSK
          dSK 25 August 2020 08: 22 New
          0
          At one time, the whole country (States) worked on the lunar program, but now they do not want it, the pleasure is too expensive so far. The story is the same in Russia.
        2. SovAr238A
          SovAr238A 27 August 2020 20: 53 New
          0
          Quote: garik77
          NRE does not imply its use as a starting stage. The launch into orbit will continue to be powered by chemical engines (LPRE / TTRD), and there, in space, with the help of a nuclear stage, spacecraft will be able to accelerate to speeds that are currently unattainable in tens and even hundreds of kilometers per second.

          A thousand years after the start of acceleration?
          1. garik77
            garik77 27 August 2020 21: 08 New
            -1
            Don't write nonsense. YARD, if you understand what this is about, has a solid thrust, reaching tens of tons, i.e. it will accelerate the payload quickly enough.
            If we talk about ion and plasma engines powered by a reactor power plant, then acceleration there will take from several weeks to several months. But this is no longer a nuclear rocket engine, this is an electric rocket type of engines, so they have very little thrust with a huge specific impulse.
            1. SovAr238A
              SovAr238A 27 August 2020 22: 05 New
              -1
              Quote: garik77
              Don't write nonsense. YARD, if you understand what this is about, has a solid thrust, reaching tens of tons, i.e. it will accelerate the payload quickly enough.
              If we talk about ion and plasma engines powered by a reactor power plant, then acceleration there will take from several weeks to several months. But this is no longer a nuclear rocket engine, this is an electric rocket type of engines, so they have very little thrust with a huge specific impulse.

              About nonsense that you did not find in your words?
              You are bad with the perception of texts, but excellent with fantasies ...
              Wet and baby ...

              But in fact, the article says directly:
              In 2009, the development of a similar product began in Russia. The "transport and power module" (TEM) or "space tug" is to receive a nuclear power plant of a megawatt class coupled with an ID-500 ion engine.


              And where in the article about tens of tons of thrust?

              Figured it out myself?
              1. garik77
                garik77 29 August 2020 01: 20 New
                +1
                You are talking nonsense, or rather you don’t understand what YARD is. It makes no sense to discuss further, go to school.
                1. Ilya-spb
                  Ilya-spb 8 October 2020 07: 54 New
                  +1
                  Unfortunately, this does not work in modern Russian schools ...
        3. ont65
          ont65 16 October 2020 12: 41 New
          0
          Not at all. Engines of the RD-0410 type will be the optimal choice for takeoff and landing modules descending and lifting to orbital stations from planets. This technology was tested with an eye to future use where there are no spaceports, no refined petrochemicals, no oxygen, but there is an opportunity to use local resources - the Moon, satellites of the planets of gas giants.
  2. Knell wardenheart
    Knell wardenheart 24 August 2020 19: 56 New
    +1
    External sanctions stifle the development of this project in our country - the tugboat ourselves would be superfluous, external consumers will face sanctions risks and will not get involved with it. The United States itself has too developed a space-related lobby for someone with such decisions to get in there. In general, everything will most likely crawl on the belly, as we are seeing now or more slowly.
    1. Vadim237
      Vadim237 24 August 2020 20: 31 New
      +2
      On our space, not particularly US sanctions were imposed, and indeed anyone else. And in spite of the appearance of an analogue of RD 180 - LPRE BE 4, the United States bought the first one and will continue to buy it, since it is reliable and proven, and I also think that the nuclear power plant as part of a space tug for various international research missions will is in demand and in the future new installations will begin to appear, consisting of plasma engines with a capacity of 10, 100, 500 MW and even 1 GW for interplanetary flights and beyond the solar system.
      1. Knell wardenheart
        Knell wardenheart 24 August 2020 20: 44 New
        +4
        Well, you know the theory of all reality is quite noticeably different. In theory, it was possible to stir up the Lunar base even in the late 60s and early 70s; in practice, they had not flown to the Moon for more than 40 years. There are a lot of examples of such a plan - but they are united by two important points - economy and expediency.
        An economically similar product would not be needed exclusively by our space - as practice has shown, we were more than satisfied with the Soviet reserve. What our space does not go beyond the orbit for the most part for a long time and firmly. Accordingly, such a product would interest us to a greater extent (and in terms of payback) as an element of some kind of international cooperation. Which seems to me very vague - no, if we ALREADY had this tugboat today, for example, we would probably have concluded some kind of agreement and everything would have been tip-top. But in fact, it is necessary to somehow force this direction - and they will not give us loans in the West, and accordingly, without them, our managers will not have confidence in the profit from creating a whole product. They will pull the rubber, which we observe.
        You see, another problem is that TEM assumes a full-fledged nuclear reactor on board - which will need to be launched into orbit, loaded there, etc., without the West's interest in this project - they will sabotage it, including through this question. They will announce that we are making progress in the militarization of outer space, for example. Shouting will be decent - it will ruin the issue of project loading and investment even more, so this is also a political issue, as far as I think. Until we have normalized relations with the West, OR until we grow our own Wishlist for some distant space. missions - whether with Europe, with China, or even with India - the situation will not move with a high degree of probability.
        1. Kot_Kuzya
          Kot_Kuzya 25 August 2020 06: 59 New
          0
          They do not fly to the Moon for the simple reason that the Americans did not land on the Moon, all these Apolloes simply flew around the Moon and returned back without landing on it. On Earth, to launch a rocket into space, they build huge and extremely expensive spaceports, but they are building, because without them you simply cannot launch a rocket into space. And then they tell us that the Americans allegedly landed on the moon, walked on the moon and took off back, as if they were driving along a country road, decided to stop stretching their legs, and drove on. In addition, even now launching rockets even into a short orbit is a risky business, accidents very often occur, and the launch fails. And then they flew to the moon 7 times, and there was nothing, no overlaps, as if a flight to the moon is as common as flying from Europe to Australia by plane and returning back. Of course, for the sake of plausibility, one mission was done with an overlay, a malfunction allegedly occurred, and therefore the brave astronauts returned home without landing on the moon, but at the same time everyone returned safe and sound. Happy ending, as the American people like it.
        2. Vadim237
          Vadim237 25 August 2020 17: 12 New
          -1
          In theory, it was possible to stir up the Lunar Base even in the late 60s and early 70s, then manned space was just beginning - it is clear that then it was a super-expensive pleasure, it is now prices began to fall thanks to the same private offices, and the process of obtaining components in production has become much easier in view of obtaining and the use of new technologies and materials.
          1. nickname7
            nickname7 13 October 2020 11: 41 New
            0
            theory it was possible to stir up the Lunar base even in the late 60s and early 70s

            What is the base for? There are no tasks for the base in then and today. Actually, even flagoftyk was produced for the sake of show. But with the development of electronics and instrumentation, it became possible to launch satellites for scientific purposes, to study comets and planets. Space is needed today for science. And we need a means of delivering satellites, for example, to Pluto. If they can make a tugboat better than chemical missiles, it will be a breakthrough.
            There is one more thing, the satellites have low electrical power, because of which, the transmission rates are scanty, information is transmitted for months, the reactor will increase the energy budget to 200 kW and the transmission rates can be increased.
        3. SovAr238A
          SovAr238A 27 August 2020 20: 54 New
          -1
          Quote: Knell Wardenheart
          Well, you know the theory of all reality is quite noticeably different. In theory, it was possible to stir up the Lunar base even in the late 60s and early 70s; in practice, they had not flown to the Moon for more than 40 years. There are a lot of examples of such a plan - but they are united by two important points - economy and expediency.
          An economically similar product would not be needed exclusively by our space - as practice has shown, we were more than satisfied with the Soviet reserve. What our space does not go beyond the orbit for the most part for a long time and firmly. Accordingly, such a product would interest us to a greater extent (and in terms of payback) as an element of some kind of international cooperation. Which seems to me very vague - no, if we ALREADY had this tugboat today, for example, we would probably have concluded some kind of agreement and everything would have been tip-top. But in fact, it is necessary to somehow force this direction - and they will not give us loans in the West, and accordingly, without them, our managers will not have confidence in the profit from creating a whole product. They will pull the rubber, which we observe.
          You see, another problem is that TEM assumes a full-fledged nuclear reactor on board - which will need to be launched into orbit, loaded there, etc., without the West's interest in this project - they will sabotage it, including through this question. They will announce that we are making progress in the militarization of outer space, for example. Shouting will be decent - it will ruin the issue of project loading and investment even more, so this is also a political issue, as far as I think. Until we have normalized relations with the West, OR until we grow our own Wishlist for some distant space. missions - whether with Europe, with China, or even with India - the situation will not move with a high degree of probability.

          Tell us why we need a space interplanetary tug ...
          1. Knell wardenheart
            Knell wardenheart 27 August 2020 21: 07 New
            0
            I don't think you need him)
            1. SovAr238A
              SovAr238A 27 August 2020 22: 01 New
              -1
              Quote: Knell Wardenheart
              I don't think you need him)


              Silly attempt to drain ...
              Absolutely worthless ..
              An attempt to translate communication into individuals.
              Well, OK.
              Nuclear tug ...
              Why do you personally?
              Or Roscosmos specifically for what?
              What FACTUAL PLANS can be on it for the next 10 years, looking not at the development trends of space programs of Roscosmos and other countries ...
        4. ont65
          ont65 16 October 2020 12: 57 New
          0
          In the 70s, the issue of manned flights outside the Earth's orbit was settled first of all by a political decision (they simply closed funding here and there), and secondly by a technical one. Until now, there are no sufficiently reliable life support systems for a long period of use, everything has to be often replenished and replaced with parcels from the Earth, and the very terms of safe stay in space turned out to be small (the Earth's astronauts are covered by the planet's magnetic field). Plus, inevitably growing problems of the musculoskeletal system in zero gravity.
      2. military_cat
        military_cat 24 August 2020 21: 41 New
        -1
        Quote: Vadim237
        On our space, not particularly US sanctions were imposed, and indeed anyone else. And in spite of the appearance of an analogue of RD 180 - LRE BE 4, the USA bought the first one and will continue to buy it, since it is reliable and proven

        The reality actually looks something like this:

        https://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/6490551

        The United States could not do this right away, but, nevertheless, it was inevitable.
  3. Operator
    Operator 24 August 2020 21: 16 New
    -1
    Everything listed in the article is outdated rubbish: a Russian 63 nickel battery with a specific power of 4 watts / kg and a power release period of 50 years drives.
    1. garik77
      garik77 24 August 2020 23: 35 New
      +1
      No isotope battery is capable of competing with reactors in its characteristics. And their purpose is completely different.
      1. Operator
        Operator 25 August 2020 00: 37 New
        -1
        The specific power of a nuclear reactor with highly enriched fuel (40% plutonium) and a turbine generator unit is two orders of magnitude higher than that of a beta-voltaic nickel battery 63.

        But the ratio of costs, as well as the times of operation in automatic mode, is exactly the opposite.
  4. garik77
    garik77 24 August 2020 23: 32 New
    +1
    Unfortunately, the lack of a spirit of competition in space greatly hinders the development of astronautics, including the creation of nuclear engines and high-power reactor-type power plants.
    Although China is advancing by leaps and bounds, it is not yet a competitor to the states, and Russia, alas, only "designs" from papier-mâché. sad
    I think another 20-30 years will pass and then slowly, without haste, they will create a working sustainer NRM for booster stages in space. And there, you see, by the end of the century, the fusion will be squeezed out, then it will be very good, the entire solar system will become accessible and it will even be possible to try to throw automatic probes to the nearest stars within a reasonable time frame of 30-50 years.
  5. Genry
    Genry 25 August 2020 07: 08 New
    -1
    In short: an article about the fact that the Americans are the first, and the rest are in the ass (quietly so "fucked up all the polymers"). About the fact that later the Americans used Russian developments - not a word. Now it is a matter of prestige i.e. political.

    In fact, Russia has already established itself in the overall design of a nuclear tug. There is a study of all its components.
    All that remains is to find the money and production capacity, since the tug itself is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg.
    But the main question remains: what and where to carry it.
  6. 501Legion
    501Legion 25 August 2020 08: 00 New
    +2
    compact nuclear reactors on the "petrel" and "poseidon" e, just the same harbingers that all this will soon be used in space
    1. Split
      Split 25 August 2020 15: 05 New
      0
      There are quite a few videos on Konanikhin's channel about the nuclear tug under development https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xssjbBYni8&t=5s
  7. Mityay65
    Mityay65 25 August 2020 10: 39 New
    +3
    How could such a gorgeous and grateful topic as nuclear power in space be presented so poorly? Some kind of an article on duty - "on publications in the Soviet press" - is awful ... There is absolutely nothing to comment on, it was written in order to occupy free space on the Internet ...
    The author, it is necessary, if you have already undertaken to write, at least somehow show diligence ... or it is better to think 100 times whether you should write about space? stop
  8. ont65
    ont65 25 August 2020 15: 15 New
    0
    The review is interesting, but some of the author's conclusions do not correspond to the facts. The principle laid down in RD-0410 has not changed due to the fact that the project itself has not received development. It differs from the scheme implemented in the latest promising transport system project qualitatively and quantitatively, therefore it does not replace one another. In a lunar or Martian orbital shuttle, the RD-0410 looks quite adequate because does not have a chemical or ionic analogue with such operating time and power, and it is easier for it to search for a working fluid on the surface of celestial bodies. For its development they undertook approximately representing the niche that he had to fill. Until she's gone, that's the point.
  9. Private SA
    Private SA 26 August 2020 00: 56 New
    0
    Once in the Space pavilion at VDNKh, the Yantar satellite powered by ion
    hung. But he had cravings ...
    I don’t believe in either atomic or thermonuclear engines yet. Rocket or satellite
    this is not the Lenin nuclear-powered ship. Something to power the on-board network from isotope reactors
    it turns out quite well, but as a traction engine - I don’t believe it yet.