A nuclear-powered spaceship may propel the first manned mission to Mars.
Anatoly Perminov the director of Roscosmos, the Russian counterpart of NASA, told the Russian news agency RIA that a joint Russian-US nuclear spacecraft project will be on the table during April 15th meetings with the US space agency.
Besides the US, other countries that have nuclear expertise will be included in the proposal, Perminov added. Those countries will include China, Japan, Germany, and France.
The US had several thermal nuclear spacecraft projects during the 1960s. But plans for nuclear engines like NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) or spaceships like ORION—designed to carry humans to Mars and beyond—were scrapped after US-Soviet treaties that forbid nuclear materials in space.
After that both the USSR and US turned their focus and resources almost entirely on large chemical rockets for their future Lunar programs and the planned Mars missions of the 1980s.
Yet despite the treaties, NASA found loopholes that allowed nuclear-powered planetary probes like the Promethus design. And NASA has never taken nuclear-powered manned spacecraft off their drawing boards.
Perminov mentioned that although the UK has nuclear know-how, the Brits have little real space presence.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian space community began to turn its attention back to nuclear-powered ships. Those type of spacecraft are reusable, powerful, relatively cheap, and perfect vehicles for manned planetary exploration.
Roscosmos is working to finish its design for a nuclear engine by the end of 2012. Once the plan is done the space agency wants to begin the next step: construction.
Perminov admits, however, a hurdle needs to be overcome. About $600 million will be needed to fund the project. Although much of that funding is expected to be provided by Russian state nuclear agency, Rosatom, he suggested additional funding from other space agencies or countries would be welcomed.
Old-style nuclear engines relied on explosive thrust to provide acceleration. The newer technology leans more heavily towards what's known as nuclear-electric propulsion. The two most feasible kinds are ion drive engines and plasma rockets. Such craft would be assembled in orbit as the engines, while excellent for interplanetary travel, are not powerful enough to launch from Earth.
Officials at both Roscosmos and NASA are upbeat about the meeting. Both major space agencies would like to move ahead with nuclear-powered craft. Having such capability will open the solar system for space industry, mining operations and eventually opening the doorway to the stars.