Monday, January 17, 2022

What is a nuclear thermal rocket?

Nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) is a type of thermal rocket where the heat from a nuclear reaction, often nuclear fission, replaces the chemical energy of the propellants in a chemical rocket. In an NTR, a working fluid, usually liquid hydrogen, is heated to a high temperature in a nuclear reactor and then expands through a rocket nozzle to create thrust.

The external nuclear heat source theoretically allows a higher effective exhaust velocity and is expected to double or triple payload capacity compared to chemical propellants that store energy internally.

A nuclear thermal rocket can be categorized by the type of reactor, ranging from a relatively simple solid reactor up to the much more difficult to construct but theoretically more efficient gas core reactor.

As with all thermal rocket designs, the specific impulse produced is proportional to the square root of the temperature to which the working fluid (reaction mass) is heated. To extract maximum efficiency, the temperature must be as high as possible.

For a given design, the temperature that can be attained is typically determined by the materials chosen for reactor structures, the nuclear fuel, and the fuel cladding. Erosion is also a concern, especially the loss of fuel and associated releases of radioactivity.
©NASA

NTRs have been proposed as a spacecraft propulsion technology, with the earliest ground tests occurring in 1955. The United States maintained an NTR development program through 1973, when it was shut down to focus on Space Shuttle development. Although more than ten reactors of varying power output have been built and tested, as of 2021, no nuclear thermal rocket has flown.

Whereas all early applications for nuclear thermal rocket propulsion used fission processes, research in the 2010s has moved to fusion approaches. The Direct Fusion Drive project at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is one such example, although “energy positive fusion has remained elusive”.

An atmospheric or orbital rocket failure could result in the dispersal of radioactive material into the environment. A collision with orbital debris, material failure due to uncontrolled fission, material imperfections or fatigue, or human design flaws could cause a containment breach of the fissile material.

Such a catastrophic failure while in flight could release radioactive material over the Earth in a wide and unpredictable area. The amount of contamination would depend on the size of the nuclear thermal rocket engine, while the zone of contamination and its concentration would be dependent on prevailing weather and orbital parameters at the time of re-entry.

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