Is there work being done to use nuclear power for space travel?

I understand the size of the average nuclear reactor is much to large for an airplane, not to mention the risk of an accident over a populated area, but is there any work toward nuclear powered space travel?


Thanks, AZ. How about manned space travel? Anything going on there?

9 Answers

  • 1 decade ago
    Favorite Answer

    There have been research studies in the use of nuclear power to propel spacecraft since the early 1950s. Try an internet search on "Project Rover."

    Also, as mentioned by someone, there are electric power units that use radioactive material to produce heat and then convert the heat to electricity. It's basically a dirty bomb in a box with a thermocouple to collect the heat. I am sure there is information available, and I would start at

    The whole idea is dangerous, of course, and researchers are still struggling with techniques for managing the risk. The original Rover engine would have irradiated half the atmosphere if launched from the surface. A more likely scenario is a launching from orbit for a longer range mission.

    There are possibilities, but lots of work to be done.

    Source(s): PhD in astrophysics
  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    My answer is a bit of a corrective--some of the answerers have got the facts wrong. AZ is right about the power supplies--but I gather you're talking about propulsion, particuarly for manned spacecraft.

    Here's the current status: No actual development projects are underway--but there are ongoing theoritical studies. But--back in 1968, the DOD did biuld a full scale research prototype (called the NERVA). This engine was successfully tested and produced a thrust of 25000 lbs with a specific impulse of 850 (by comparision, the most efficient engine so far for a manned spacecraft is the Shuttle Main Engine: 453 ) The power level of the engine was about 4 megawatts. It used liquid hydrogen as a "working fluid"--the hydrogen was pumped directly through a lightweight nuclear reactor to heat it.

    Thre is no indication that a nuclear engine would be particularly prone to "blowing up" and would NOT produce a radiioactive exaust. That last surprises some, but the reason is that to become radioactive, a substance has to undergoe a nuclear transformation--and hydrogen can't do that (at least not under those conditions. The only way the exhaust woudl be radioactive is if the engine malfunctioned.

    Such engines are not likely to be useful for srface-to-orbit ships--as you said, there's the danger of a crash. Also, although relatively powerful, they are also heavy--and require additional weight for sheilding the crew from the reactor. However, they may prove very useful for future interplanetary exploration missions--or perhaps even for regular flights to the moon when and if we establish a permanant presence there.

    As for the obvious question-why didn't anyone develop this if they had a working prototype in 1968. Answer--at the time, there was a great deal of concern--the long term effects of radiation were just beginning to be fully understood. And since the Space Shuttle was first launched, development of any advanced spacecraft has been stalled--since 1994, the GOP Congress has cancelled every program NASA had.

  • 1 decade ago

    The has been no spacecraft, manned or unmanned, to date that has been powered by a nuclear reactor. There have been ones which have had chunks of radioactive elements, such as plutonium, which have been used to generate heat which is then turned into electrical power. Cassini had some of these modules.

    Project Prometheus [they may have changed the name] planned to go to Jupiter is supposedly being designed to have an on-board nuclear reactor; of the same type as on a modern nuclear submarine. This will allow the vehicle to not only have electrical power, but propulsion as needed. It will allow controllers to go take a look at things a second or third or however many times they want. Current missions only have so much propellant. Say controllers get a picture that shows something interesting they really want to look at more closely. Well, by the time they have received and processed the picture, the vehicle more than likely has moved on in its mission and there's no going back because of propellant restraints. An on-board reactor would allow them to go back and take a better look.

    Source(s): For info about Prometheus visit:
  • 1 decade ago

    The nuclear device talked about in the first question (the one on space probes) is called a thermoelectric device. It is not based off of any form of nuclear reactor. It utilizes the heat (decay) given off by a rdioactive source (uranium, etc.), to produce power for the space craft.

    Also, the issue is not that there is not enough sunlight to power the probe, but that there are times when the probe is behind a planet and is blocked from the sun.

    The current application of this type of nuclear power would not be suitable for large space craft.

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  • 1 decade ago

    Theoretical mostly as far as I know. There haven't been any prototypes or anything to my knowledge. They're still in the "maybe this'll work" stage of things. I believe they're also hoping to use fusion, rather than fission, as the energy output would be quite a bit higher.

    Check out the link below for a description of various projects NASA is working on using nuclear power for spaceflight. The article contains links to a few of NASA's projects so you can find out what they're up to.

    There are also a number of designs for ships that use controlled nuclear explosions to "push" the ship, rather than having a nuclear reactor on board. The ship would basically have a large sail somewhere on it, possibly on the rear and shaped like a hallow half-sphere. A nuclear bomb would be launched from the ship and detonated at a safe distance and the energy would be caught by the sail and push the ship.

    Hope that helps.

    Source(s): - Nuclear Pulse Propulsion:
  • ?
    Lv 4
    4 years ago

    relies upon on what you mean. A nuclear powered element can produce electrical energy in closed gadget (provided the cooling gadget is working) whether it could no longer produce thrust without some style of medium to thrust with. you need to use it to boil water and spit that out the decrease back at stress, yet you nevertheless choose the water. What it is going to be stable for is powering stuff that remains placed. in spite of moon base we build, it will be a nuclear powered element. On Mars shall we use a nuclear center to skill a gadget that makes use of CO2 and water (the two accessible on Mars in abundance) to make oxygen to respire, and methane to apply as gas. So particular. Nuclear skill is contained in the way forward for the area software, yet no longer as a thruster. For nuclear thrust.. we would want to truly blow atom bombs up in decrease back of a shielded craft... You bypass first. it incredibly is all i'm sayin' :)

  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    The problem is that if the rocket has trouble during launch and blows up on the pad or within the atmosphere, all the radioactive material would scatter through the atmosphere.

    So generally nuclear power is not being considered.

  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    Virtually all the space probes that have been sent to Jupiter or beyond are or have been nuclear powered. Sunlight is too feeble to provide power at those distances.

    Of course, that's not what provides the thrust for course changes...but it does power all of the instrumentation.

  • 1 decade ago


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