(ORDO NEWS) — To explore the solar system and space beyond quickly and safely, spacecraft must have nuclear propulsion. The laws governing nuclear spaceflight have changed, and work on the next generation of rockets has begun.
Dreaming about Mars, and not only about it, humanity creates new rockets with jet engines. But you may be surprised to learn that today’s rockets don’t fly much faster than the rockets of the past.
There are many reasons to chase the speed of flights. The first step of any space travel is to go into orbit with the help of jet engines, which have no alternatives yet.
When the ship enters space, everything becomes much more interesting – it needs additional acceleration. This is where nuclear systems come into play. If astronauts want to explore something more distant than the Moon and possibly Mars, they will need to move very, very quickly.
There are two reasons to strive for this: safety and time. On the way to Mars, people will be exposed to very high levels of radiation, which can cause serious health problems. Radiation protection weighs a lot, and the farther the way, the more massive it should be. The best way to reduce radiation exposure is simply to get to your destination faster.
But human safety is not the only benefit that comes with speed. As we explore the depths of space, there is a need to get data about it as quickly as possible. We have no time to wait for 10 years until the devices reach the outskirts of the solar system. The Voyager 2 probe took 12 years to reach Neptune.
How are engines different?
There are three important aspects to consider when comparing engines:
- Thrust – how fast the system can accelerate the ship
- Mass efficiency – how much thrust the system can produce for a given amount of fuel
- Energy density – how much energy a given amount of fuel can produce
Currently, the most common engines are chemical, fuel-powered, as well as electric, using solar energy.
Chemical engines provide more thrust, but they are inefficient, and rocket fuel is not energy intensive enough. The Saturn V rocket that carried astronauts to the Moon produced 35 million Newtons and had to be filled with 4.3 million liters of propellant. In fact, this rocket is a huge fuel tank.
Electric propulsion systems generate thrust from solar panels. In this case, an electric field is used to accelerate the ions – the Hall engine. Such engines are used in satellites and can have more than five times the mass efficiency of chemical ones.
But their thrust is no good – about three newtons. If you equipped a car with such a motor, then it would accelerate to 100 km / h in about two and a half hours. In addition, the further this engine is from the Sun, the less energy it receives.
One of the reasons why the development of atomic engines has resumed is that they have an incredible energy density. The uranium fuel used in nuclear reactors has an energy density four million times that of chemical rocket fuel. Agree, it is easier to deliver a little uranium into space than millions of liters of liquid fuel.
Two types of nuclear engines
Engineers have developed two types of nuclear systems for space travel. The first is called nuclear thermal propulsion. These systems are very powerful and moderately effective. They have a small nuclear reactor, similar to those that are equipped with nuclear submarines.
Hydrogen is heated in it, which is subsequently accelerated through the rocket nozzle – this is how thrust is obtained. NASA engineers estimate that a nuclear-powered Mars flight would be 20-25% faster.
Nuclear-thermal propulsion systems are more than twice as efficient as chemical propulsion. This means that they generate twice as much thrust with the same amount of propellant – up to 100,000 newtons. This is enough to accelerate the car to a speed of 100 km / h in a quarter of a second.
The second system is called nuclear electric propulsion. In reality, it does not yet exist, but the idea is to use a powerful reactor to generate electricity, which would then drive an electric propulsion system – still the same Hall engine. Such an installation would be about three times more efficient than a nuclear thermal one.
After 60 years of inactivity (nuclear engine – 1960s development), a nuclear-powered rocket could launch into space within the next decade. This will usher in a new era of space exploration.
Mars will become much closer, and flights to it will become cheaper. Scientific experiments will be carried out faster, and researchers will shower us with discoveries made in different parts of the solar system and beyond.
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