Three different types of nuclear energy sources have been investigated for delivering heat to a working fluid, usually liquid hydrogen, which subsequently can be expanded in a nozzle and thus accelerated to high ejection velocities (6000 to 10,000 m/sec). However, none can be considered fully developed today and none have flown. They are the fission reacWr, the
radioactive isotope decay source, and the fusion reactor. All three types are basically extensions of liquid propellant rocket engines. The heating of the gas is accomplished by energy derived from transformations within the nuclei of atoms. In chemical rockets the energy is obtained from within the propellants, but in nuclear rockets the power source is usually separate from the propellant.
In the nuclear fission reactor rocket, heat can be generated by the fission of uranium in the solid reactor material and subsequently transferred to the working fluid (see Refs. 1-9 to 1-11). The nuclear fission rocket is primarily a high-thrust engine (above 40,000 N) with specific impulse values up to 900 sec. Fission rockets were designed and tested in the 1960s. Ground tests with hydrogen as a working fluid culminated in a thrust of 980,000 N (210,000 lb force) at a graphite core nuclear reactor level of 4100 MW with an equivalent altitude-specific impulse of 848 sec and a hydrogen temperature of about 2500 K. There were concerns with the endurance of the materials at the high temperature (above 2600 K) and intense radiations, power level control, cooling a reactor after operation, moderating the high-energy neutrons, and designing lightweight radiation shields for a manned space vehicle.
In recent years there have been renewed interest in nuclear fission rocket propulsion primarily for a potential manned planetary exploration mission. Studies have shown that the high specific impulse (estimated in some studies at 1100 sec) allows shorter interplanetary trip transfer times, smaller vehicles, and more flexibility in the launch time when planets are not in their optimum relative position.
In the isotope decay engine a radioactive material gives off radiation, which is readily converted into heat. Isotope decay sources have been used successfully for generating electrical power in space vehicles and some have been flown as a power supply for satellites and deep space probes. The released energy can be used to raise the temperature of a propulsive working fluid such as hydrogen or perhaps drive an electric propulsion system. It provides usually a lower thrust and lower temperature than the other types of nuclear rocket. As yet, isotope decay rocket engines have not been developed or flown.
Fusion is the third nuclear method of creating nuclear energy that can heat a working fluid. A number of different concepts have been studied. To date none have been tested and many concepts are not yet feasible or practical. Concerns about an accident with the inadvertent spreading of radioactive materials in the earth environment and the high cost of development programs have to date prevented a renewed experimental development of a large nuclear rocket engine. Unless there are some new findings and a change in world attitude, it is unlikely that a nuclear rocket engine will be developed or flown in the next few decades, therefore no further discussion of it is given in this book.
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What you need to know about… Project Management Made Easy! Project management consists of more than just a large building project and can encompass small projects as well. No matter what the size of your project, you need to have some sort of project management. How you manage your project has everything to do with its outcome.