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New Ideas for Space Exploration: Center for Space Nuclear Research (CSNR) Dr. Steven D. Howe 9/04/09 Current NASA Plan: Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) Design and build Ares-I- solid rocket 1 st stage, Lox/Lh2 second stage – both are new systems

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New ideas for space exploration center for space nuclear research csnr l.jpg

New Ideas for Space Exploration:Center for Space Nuclear Research (CSNR)

Dr. Steven D. Howe


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Current NASA Plan: Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS)

  • Design and build Ares-I- solid rocket 1st stage, Lox/Lh2 second stage – both are new systems

  • Ares-I takes humans to orbit in the ORION (upgraded Apollo) capsule

  • Ares V is a heavy lift vehicle – 125 T to LEO

  • Start Lunar sorties (~10) by 2018

  • Establish a lunar Outpost around 2020

  • Mars in 2030

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Lunar Trajectory Objectives

  • Minimum ΔV trajectory

  • Time-of-Flight (TOF) is not a significant concern.

  • Insertion into either equatorial or polar LLO

Lunar Orbit

Capture (LOC)

Low Earth Orbit (LEO)


Orbit (TLO)



Low Lunar Orbit (LLO)

Trans Lunar

Injection (TLI)

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CSNR Perspective

  • Goal of space exploration is understanding our “neighborhood”, i.e. the solar system

    • Unmanned scientific missions for science and as a precursor to human missions

    • Ultimate goal is the expansion of human civilization throughout the solar system

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CSNR Perspective

Current propulsion technologies are insufficient for human expansion past the Moon

we need the “steamship” equivalent to the sailing ships of the past

what is the next propulsion technology - fission, fusion, electric propulsion, sails, beams?

According to the Independent Review Panel convened in 1999 to review the propulsion technologies examined in the NASA Advanced Space Transportation Program:

“The Review Team categorized fission as the only technology of those presented [45 concepts were presented] which is applicable to human exploration of the near planets in the near to mid-term time frame…”

The CSNR proposes that the Nuclear Thermal Rocket (NTR) is the only near term option for improved transportation of humans to other planets

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Benefits of the NTR have been shown for several missions

  • Moon - Reduce costs of implementing a Lunar Outpost

  • Mars - Faster missions for humans; reduced radiation exposure; lower costs for cargo; adaptability to hazards

  • Good Asteroid - rendezvous

  • Bad Asteroid/comet - rapid interception

  • Outer solar system – time to “first science” within a decade for orbitor missions to outer planets and to Kuiper Belt fly-through

In short, the NTR opens up access to the entire solar system for humans and robotic probes

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Nuclear Technologies in Space

  • Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTG)

  • Fission Surface Power (FSP)

  • Nuclear Thermal Rockets (NTR)

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The CSNR is pursing a Common Technology for reactor fuels and radioisotope sources

The distribution and encapsulation of radioisotope materials and nuclear fuels in an inert carrier matrix will address several issues and requirements for space power applications:

Potential to address non-proliferation security requirements.

The ability to survive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and impact under accident conditions.

Assembly & handling safety

Reduction in material self interaction such as -n reactions.

Self-shielding properties.

The SPS acquired with a INL LDRD grant enables fabrication of tungsten parts at nearly full theoretical density

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Status of Radioisotope Power

In 2007, DOE will purchase the last 10 kg of Pu-238 from Russia (ref- Robert Lange, DOE/NE,ANS Space Nuclear Conference, June, 2007)

Total of 24 kg will be in the US inventory

Four Flagship missions are currently in pre-design which may consume most, if not all, of the PU-238 available to NASA

NASA recently called for proposals for Discovery class missions that would use Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generators (ASRGs)

Without a restart of Pu-238 production in the US, no missions will go beyond Mars after ~2017

However, over 1800 other radioisotopes exist that might be applicable to exploration missions

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CSNR examination of radioisotope power and propulsion

  • Radioisotopes can have 100,000 times the energy density as current batteries

  • Examined the use of alternative isotopes

    • Shorter half lives

    • Higher power density

  • Examined new encapsulation techniques

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1.2 Isotope Preliminary Selection:

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Radio-Isotope Heated Jet Engines for Titan Flight Applications

  • Utilize radioisotope heat sources to power Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

    • NASA:

      • ENABLES detailed, high resolution mapping of the surface of planets and moons with non-oxygen atmospheres

    • DOD/ DHS application and interest:

      • May enable detailed mapping of the Earth’s ocean bottom

      • May allow long duration observation of borders or hostile territory

Image courtesy of

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Operation Basics

  • Replace combustion chamber in jet engines with a radioisotope driven heat exchanger

  • Operates for months to years based on isotope selection

  • Somewhat throttled

  • Utilizes ~95% of heat generated

  • Stable, robust, long-lived

Image courtesy of

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Titan Flight Conditions

  • 200 kg craft

  • P=1.6 bar; ρ=5.7kg/m3

  • Flight Velocity of 20 to 50 mph

  • Lift to drag ratio of 12

  • CL of 0.63

  • Required thrust of 8 lbf

  • Wing planform area of ~10 ft2

Image courtesy of

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Unmanned Underwater Vehicle for US Port Security

  • Concept of Operations

    • Scan ships of interest to determine the existence of special nuclear material

    • Acquire, track, follow, and report the location of ships of interest

    • Operate without being detected

  • Outfitted with SNM detection equipment

    • Close proximity maneuvering near ships

    • 15-20 knots operation speed

    • 5-Year mission durations

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NASA’s FSP program seeks to design and build an “affordable reactor”

UO2 fuel,

stainless steel clad,

NaK coolant

Most of the mass is in the radiators

Shield mass depends on distance and burial option

Estimated cost is $1.8B

Fission Surface Power (FSP)

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CSNR alternative:Mobile Nuclear Powered Base

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Project Description

  • NASA’s current plan is the US Space Exploration Policy (was Vision for Space Exploration)

  • Return humans to the Moon and then to Mars

  • The current plan allows for 5-10 Sorties:

    • Placing a few humans on the lunar surface for 2 weeks at different locations

    • Then placing a lunar outpost somewhere that houses 6 humans for 6 weeks

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Project Description, cont.

  • Included is a rover that will allow astronauts to travel 300 km in 3 days

    • Estimated power ~2kWe

    • Unshielded against lethal solar flares

  • Adding shielding against solar flares adds ~2 tons

    • Required power ~10-20kWe

  • A completely mobile base would:

    • Reduce number of costly sorties

    • Allow long stay times

    • Provide shielding from lethal solar flares

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Mobility Options – “Wagon”

  • Habitation Modules

  • Radiator/Storage Carts

  • Reactor Cart

Reactor at Full Power In Transit

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360° Radial Shields

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Smart Shields

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CSNR Alternative:Optically Coupled Lunar Reactor

  • Utilize the tungsten based technology

  • Free standing uranium loaded tungsten core

  • Hard vacuum in a totally reflective cylinder

  • Reflect all light to PV array at base

  • Advantages

    • Power conversion unit can be repaired

    • Beam power to factory

    • Use process heat

    • Light weight option allows “landed reactor”

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Mass Comparison

  • Mass comparison between Optical System and the FSP.

  • Is it feasible?

  • Yes, under these conditions:

  • Thermophotovoltaic Cells efficiency is increased.

  • The reflector design can be advanced so more than 50% of the radiation exit after one reflection.

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Nuclear Thermal Rockets (NTR) offer 2x the performance of the Shuttle engines

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Recent developments in NASA for Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP)

NASA’s Mars Architecture Study (Dec 2007) concluded that the NTR was required for human missions to Mars

National Research Council committee (S. Howe served as one of 23 members) that reviewed the NASA Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP) just reported (8/21/08) that the one technical gap in program was no funding for the NTR.

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  • Ensuring no emission of Radioactive exhaust

  • Ensuring difficulty of extracting fuel

  • Ground testing

  • Operations in space- restart

  • Reliability – space cold

  • Cost

Tungsten based fuel may solve 1, 2 and 3

Supplying the Lunar Base would address 4, 5 and 6

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NTR-Based ESAS Architecture



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Tungsten Cermet Fuels

  • Hot hydrogen compatibility

  • Better thermal conductivity

  • Potential for long life reactors

    • High melting point (~3700 K)

    • Resistance to creep at high temperatures

  • Smaller reactor core then carbide fuels

  • Good radiation migration properties

  • Contains fission products and uranium oxide in fuel

  • More radiation resistant than carbon

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NTR-Based ESAS Architecture

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Near Earth Objects (NEO)



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Problem Statement

  • Long-period comet, traveling towards Earth with nearly linear trajectory across solar system

    • Approximation of worst-case scenario

  • Diameter ~10 km, mass ~3e+14 kg as initial definition

  • Comet initially observed at ~5 AU (1 AU = 1.49e+8 km) around Jupiter orbit traveling ~18 km/s and gradually accelerating as approaching earth

    • Parabolic trajectory

  • Approximate impact time is ~ 297 days ~ 10 months



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Our Approach

  • Multiple NTRs (Nuclear Thermal Rocket) launched from LEO

    • Rockets carry thermonuclear devices (~9 Mt)

    • Mission design:

    • Determine NTR trajectory (independent of scale)

    • Estimate terminal interception yield needed per mass of comet

    • Conclude feasible problem scale based on constraints (current launch capacity, available warhead yield, etc.)



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Chemical Rocket Mass to LEO vs. Time of Intercept


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CSNR Summer Fellowships program has proven the ability to attract top students

4 years running

Nationwide search

Accept applications for 2 months

Unique research projects each year


Provide Student Fellows an in-depth understanding of nuclear reactor and radioisotope power and heating technologies applied to space exploration

Gain experience using complex computer codes that will be applicable to modeling nuclear systems

Speaking and writing experience (weekly presentations by students)

Exposure to INL and Idaho Falls

Produce sufficient information for production of unsolicited proposals to federal agencies

Provide pool to fill “Next Degree” opportunities

Identify good fits to INL and not-so-good fits

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2009 CSNR Summer Fellowships

Funded by a combination of

NASA - $100K

CAES program development - $25K

INL NGNP program – $25K

105 applications – due to USRA broadcast to members

Accepted 14 Fellows represent 10 states and 12 universities

4 PhD candidates, 9 MS, 1 undergraduate, 1 DoE intern


5 Nuclear eng.,

4 mechanical eng.,

2 physics,

1 aerospace eng., 1 chemical eng., and 1 computer science

Working on “challenging” topics attracts the students

Mobile lunar base, nuclear rockets, decoupled fast reactors, isotope powered UAVs and UUVs, “smart” shields, comet interceptors, Mars Hopper

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Next Degree (NxD) Program Objectives

Build technical workforce in the CSNR and provide a feedstream into INL

Difficult to develop projects in CSNR without feasibility studies

Hard to do feasibility studies using INL staff without funding

Shortage of NE graduates- getting worse

Students are tempted to leave early for a paycheck

Desire is to attract top quality students from around the country to INL/CSNR by engaging them in space exploration projects

Many students do not automatically see INL and Idaho as a premier research location

NxD students work ½ time at industry competitive salary on CSNR or INL project and ½ time on their next degree

Able to retain school affiliation or enroll in Idaho Universities

Number of NxD students increased to 7 in FY09

3 PhD and 4 MS

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Further contact

Center for Space Nuclear Research

Universities Space Research Association (USRA)

Idaho National Laboratory

Dr. Steven D. Howe

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