Space travel requires an enormous amount of energy to sustain spacecraft during increasingly lengthy journeys that will eventually take them to the outermost regions of the universe. In search of a way to power future space journey the United States and Russia are meeting to discuss the use of nuclear power.
Hoping to work together on the project engineers from both countries will share their ideas to see if safe and practical nuclear power can be used in spacecraft.
Although military use of nuclear power has proven safe and reliable, the technology has never been used in space and therefore raises obvious concerns.
For example, if a nuclear –powered space craft should malfunction on liftoff, the impact on the world could prove to be disastrous. Similarly, there are questions to be addressed when it comes to nuclear fallout in space which could prove disastrous to humans and equipment.
The Register says that all nations with well-developed manufacturing sectors are sought as partners in the endeavor, meaning Japan, Britain, France, China and Russia.
For its part, Russia has already said that it wants to roll out its design for a nuclear space engine by the end of 2012. The engine would be used for power and propulsion simultaneously, creating new challenges. The register story says that nuclear power appears to be the only option to traditional rockets for lift-off, although nuclear ion or plasma-based solutions are expected to work better for propulsion after spacecraft are in orbit.
Although some space-based nuclear projects have already been deployed, they have been relatively small. The Register says that radioisotope power is currently used in an array of satellites and will be used in future space rovers. NASA experience has shown that solar powered machines such as the Mars rovers cannot move very far with only solar power.
In spite of the emerging plans Russia has for nuclear propulsion in space, it may be redundant, seeing that NASA reportedly has completed plans of its own. Regarding the joint initiative, the Register appears to be skeptical, making the inference that Russia’s inability to finance such a project on its own is the factor that drives its desire for an international partnership in the endeavor.
Perhaps one of the greatest lessons of the Russian – US collaboration in nuclear power is that solar power does not have the potential to create enough energy to power the developed world. Just as space projects appear poised to abandon solar power; developed western nations that have pinned al future hopes on solar and wind energy may ultimately discover that the only way to fuel the future is with safe implementations of nuclear energy.