The development of a nuclear space engine began in the Russian Federation


The development of a megawatt-class nuclear power plant for a new generation of space technology began in Russia. Task assigned to Keldysh Research Center. The director of the Center, the president of the Tsiolkovsky Russian Academy of Cosmonautics Anatoly KOROTEYEV tells the Interfax-AVN about the importance of this project for Russian cosmonautics and its importance to Interfax-AVN, writes

- Anatoly Sazonovich, the development of a nuclear power plant has become a priority goal, for the achievement of which considerable resources will be concentrated. Is this really a project on which the future of astronautics depends?

- Exactly. Let's see what astronautics is doing today. We will see such areas as satellite communications, high-precision space navigation, remote sensing of the Earth - that is, everything that relates to information support. The second direction is the solution of questions connected with the expansion of our knowledge of space beyond the circumterrestrial space. Finally, cosmonautics, both in our country and in other countries, is working to solve a specific range of defense tasks. Here are conditionally three sets of tasks for space activity today. To solve them, time-tested, used transport systems are used.

If we look at what we expect from astronautics tomorrow, here, along with the improvement of the range of problems already solved, questions of the development of production technologies in space are raised. We are also talking about expeditions to the Moon and Mars. And not about visiting expeditions, which was the American expedition to the Moon, but about a long stay on other planets, so that you can devote enough time to study them.

In addition, questions are raised about the possible power supply of the Earth from space, about the fight against asteroid-comet hazard. All these tasks are of a completely different order than today's ones. So, if we think about how well this complex of tasks is provided by the transport and energy structure, we will see that there is a serious need to improve the energy supply of our spacecraft and engine efficiency.

We have today uneconomical vehicles. Imagine, out of every 100 tonnes flying away from Earth, into a payload, at best, 3% turns. This is for all modern rockets. Everything else is emitted in the form of burnt fuel.

As for the future tasks, it is extremely important that we move economically enough in space. Here there is the concept of specific thrust, which characterizes the efficiency of the engine. This is the ratio of the thrust created by him to mass fuel consumption. If we take the first German V-2 rocket, then its specific thrust in old units was equal to 220 seconds. Today, the best propulsion and energy system using hydrogen with oxygen gives specific thrust for up to 450 seconds. That is 60-70 years of work of the best minds of the world raised the value of the specific thrust of traditional rocket engines only twice.

Is it possible to increase this figure by several times or by orders of magnitude? It turns out there is. For example, using nuclear engines, we could increase the specific thrust to about 900 seconds, that is, another two times. And using an ionized working fluid to break up, you could reach 9000-10000 seconds, that is, raise the specific thrust by 20. And this has already been partially achieved today: plasma thrusters are used on satellites with small thrusts, which give specific thrust of the order of 1600 seconds. However, such devices still need sufficient electrical power. If you do not take into account a completely unique structure - the International Space Station, where the level of electricity is about 100 kW, then today the most powerful satellites have the level of electrical supply of all 20-30 kW. It is very difficult to solve a number of problems if we remain at this level.

- That is, you need a qualitative leap?

- Yes. Cosmonautics, today is experiencing a state close to that in which aviation It turned out to be after the Second World War, when it became clear that with piston engines it was no longer possible to increase speed, it was impossible to seriously increase the range, and generally have economically viable aircraft. Then, as you remember, a jump occurred in aviation, and they switched from piston engines to jet ones. Approximately the same situation is now in space technology. We lack energy perfection to solve serious problems.

By the way, it became clear not today. Already in the 60-70-ies, work began in both us and the United States on the use of nuclear energy in space. Initially, the task was to create rocket engines, which instead of the chemical energy of combustion of fuel and oxidizer would use the heating of hydrogen to a temperature of about 3000 degrees. But it turned out that such a direct path is still ineffective. We receive large thrusts for a short time, but at the same time we throw out a jet, which, in the event of an abnormal operation of the reactor, may be radioactively contaminated.

Despite the enormous amount of work that was done in 60-70-s in the USSR and the USA, neither we nor the Americans could create reliable, working engines at that time. They worked, but not enough, because heating hydrogen to 3000 thousands of degrees in a nuclear reactor is a serious task.

There were problems with the environment during ground tests of engines, since radioactive jets were emitted into the atmosphere. In the USSR, these works were carried out at the Semipalatinsk test site specially prepared for nuclear tests, which remained in Kazakhstan.

And yet, in terms of the use of nuclear energy to power the spacecraft of the USSR in those years, it took a very serious step. The 32 satellite was manufactured. With the use of nuclear energy on the apparatuses, it was possible to obtain electrical powers an order of magnitude higher than from solar energy.

Subsequently, the USSR and the USA, for various reasons, stopped this work for a while. Today it is clear that they need to be renewed. But it seemed unreasonable to renew it in such a frontal manner in order to make a nuclear engine with the above-mentioned shortcomings, and we proposed a completely different approach.

- And what is the fundamental difference between the new approach?

- This approach differed from the old one in the same way that a hybrid car differs from a regular car. In an ordinary car, the engine turns the wheels, and in hybrid cars, the engine produces electricity, and this electricity already turns the wheels. That is, some kind of intermediate power plant is being created.

Similarly, we have proposed a scheme in which the space reactor does not heat the jet ejected from it, but produces electricity. Hot gas from the reactor turns the turbine, the turbine turns the electric generator and compressor, which circulates the working fluid in a closed loop. The generator produces electricity for a plasma engine with specific gravity 20 times higher than that of chemical engines.

What are the main advantages of this approach. First, there is no need for the Semipalatinsk test site .. We can conduct all tests on the territory of Russia, without being drawn into any long difficult international negotiations on the use of nuclear energy outside the state. Secondly, the jet coming out of the engine will not be radioactive, since a completely different working fluid passes through the reactor, which is in a closed loop. In addition, we do not need to heat the hydrogen in this scheme, here an inert working fluid circulates in the reactor, which heats up to 1500 degrees. We seriously simplify our task. Finally, in the end, we will not raise the specific thrust, but 20 times compared to chemical engines.

- Is it possible to name the timing of the project?

- The project involves the following steps: in 2010, the start of work; in 2012, completion of the outline design and thorough computer modeling of the workflow; in 2015, the creation of a nuclear power plant; in 2018, the creation of a transport module using this propulsion system to prepare the system for flight the same year.

By the way, the phase of computer simulation was not previously characteristic of the created products of space technology, but today it is absolutely necessary. On the example of the latest engines that were developed in Russia, France and the USA, it became clear that the classical old method, when a large number of prototypes were made for testing, was obsolete.

Today, when computing capabilities are very high, especially with the advent of supercomputers, we can provide physical and mathematical modeling of processes, create a virtual engine, play possible situations, see where the pitfalls are, and only after that go to create an engine as they say "in hardware ".

Here is a case in point. You have probably heard about the RD - 180 engine created for Americans in the Energomash design bureau for the Atlas rocket. Instead of 25-30 copies, which usually went to work on the engine, it took just 8, and RD-180 immediately went into life. Because the developers have given themselves the trouble of all this "lose" on computers.

- What is the price of the issue?

- Today, the entire project has declared 17 billion rubles in 2018 a year inclusive. 2010 million rubles were allocated directly to 500 for the year, including 430 million rubles for Rosatom and 70 million rubles for Roscosmos.

Naturally, we would like to believe that if the country's leadership says that this is a priority area and the money is allocated, they will be given.

The declared amount is less than we would like, but I think this is enough for the coming years, and with this money you can carry out a large range of work.

Our institute has been appointed the head of the nuclear power plant, the transport module is likely to be done by the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation.

In general, the project is based on cooperation, consisting mainly of the enterprises of Rosatom, which the reactor must do, and Roscosmos, which will manufacture the turbochargers, the generators and the engines themselves.

Of course, the work will be used scientific background, created in previous years. For example, the basis for the development of the reactor is a large number of decisions that were previously made on the nuclear engine. The cooperation is the same. This is the Podolsk Research Institute of Technology, the Kurchatov Center, this is the Obninsk Institute of Physics and Power. The Keldysh Center, the chemical engineering design bureau and the Voronezh chemical engineering design bureau did a lot along a closed loop. We will fully use this experience when creating a turbocharger. The generator, we connect the Institute of Electromechanics, which has experience in creating flight instances of generators.

In short, there is a considerable reserve, the work does not start from scratch.

- Can Russia get ahead of other countries in this work?

- I do not exclude this. I had a meeting with the deputy head of NASA, we discussed issues related to the return to work on nuclear energy in space, and he said that the Americans are showing great interest in this issue. In his opinion, one cannot exclude the possibility of forcing work in this direction in the West.

I do not exclude that China can respond with active actions on its part, therefore, it is necessary to work quickly. And not just in order to get ahead of someone by half a step. We must work quickly, first and foremost, so that in the emerging international cooperation, and de facto it is being formed today, we look decent. So that they took us there, and took us not to the role of people who should make metal trusses, but to relate to us as it was, for example, in the 90s. Then a large complex of works on nuclear sources in space was declassified. When these works became known to the Americans, they gave them a very high rating. To the extent that joint programs were drawn up with us.

In principle, it is possible that there will be an international program on nuclear power plants, similar to the ongoing program of cooperation on controlled thermonuclear fusion.

- Anatoly Sazonovich, in 2011, the world will celebrate the anniversary of the first manned flight into space. A good reason to recall the achievements of our country in space.

- I think yes. After all, it was not just the first manned flight into space. The flight was made possible by solving a very wide range of scientific, technical and medical issues. For the first time, a man flew into space and returned to Earth, for the first time it was proved that the thermal protection system works normally. The flight had a tremendous international impact. Let's not forget that all 16 years have passed since the end of the hardest war for the country. And it turned out that a country that has lost more than 20 million people and suffered tremendous damage can not only do something at the highest world level, but even be ahead of the whole world for a period. It was an extremely important demonstration that raised the authority of the country and the pride of the people.

In my life there were two similar events in importance. This is Victory Day and the meeting of Yuri Gagarin, which I saw personally. 9 May 1945, the whole of Moscow, starting from Red Square and ending in the suburbs, went out to celebrate on the streets. It was a really spontaneous rush, and the same impressive rush was in April 1961, when Gagarin flew.

The international significance of the 50th anniversary of the first flight must be strengthened. It is necessary to emphasize and remind society of the role of our country in space exploration. Unfortunately, in the past 20 years we haven't done this very often. If you open the Internet, you will see a huge amount of materials related, for example, to the American expedition to the moon, but there are not too many materials related to the flight of Gagarin. If you talk to current students, I do not know whose name they know best, Armstrong or Gagarin. Therefore, I consider it absolutely correct to celebrate the 50 anniversary of the first manned space flight at the state level and give it an international dimension.

The Tsiolkovsky Russian Academy of Cosmonautics will issue a medal for this event, which will be awarded to people who were involved in the first flight or who have made a sufficient contribution to the development of cosmonautics. In addition, we are preparing to hold a large international conference, at which we intend to bring the discussion with foreign and Russian partners of those features of manned cosmonautics that are characteristic of the modern stage. There are a lot of difficult questions.

If today we stop a hundred people on the street and ask which astronauts are flying in space now, God forbid, if three or four people will answer us, and I am not convinced of that. And if we ask the question, what the astronauts are doing at the station, then even less. I think that the promotion of real space life, manned flights is extremely important, and it is not enough. A lot of stupid material on TV, when someone met with aliens, or as aliens took someone.

I repeat, the fiftieth anniversary of the first manned flight into space is a truly epochal event, it should be noted in the most dignified manner, both within our country and internationally. And of course our institute will take a direct part in it, which was related to this flight and took part in it. A number of our employees from that period received state awards for solving flight tasks in particular. For example, the deputy director of the then institute, Academician Georgy Petrov, was awarded the title Hero of Socialist Labor for developing methods for the thermal protection of a ship during descent from orbit. Of course, we will try to adequately celebrate this event.
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  1. 0
    6 July 2012 11: 57
    I wonder who this time will win the space race. The odds are approximately equal.
  2. 0
    April 6 2015 00: 45
    The winner is the one who first creates the likeness of a space elevator and thereby significantly reduces the cost of cargo in orbit, and not a nuclear engine.
    A nuclear engine will be needed for movements in space and it is unlikely to immediately have a thrust-to-weight ratio of more than 1. Especially if the working fluid is not heated directly to the reactor. And for movements in space, not such a clean engine is quite suitable.
    1. 0
      8 May 2016 17: 03
      Well, for flights to the moon or to Mars, it will not be superfluous. And with regard to KL, here too, opportunities have come to us. Putin recently at a European conference. According to ecology, he announced the Russian-owned technology for creating nanotubes 200 times cheaper than in the west. This is still a small step and a whole thread of arbitrary length is not yet done. But for example, they will be able to reinforce aluminum armor or aircraft hulls and this will increase strength by 10 times.