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Tuesday, February 5, 2002

Nuclear Power Next for NASA?

Nuclear Power.
Nuclear Power.
Credit: Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion Tutorial
(MSNBC) NASA has proposed spending almost a billion dollars over the next five years to develop atomic-powered rockets that could speed spacecraft across the heavens and nuclear reactors to energize outposts on distant planets. In President Bush's 2003 federal budget, released Monday, the space agency proposes to spend about $46.5 million to begin developing nuclear electric rockets and $79 million more to build atomic-powered generators that can fly on spacecraft. Such atomic-driven energy systems, said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for science, would eventually free NASA from a dependence on chemical rockets, which are relatively slow and clunky, in the agency’s exploration of distant worlds, such as Jupiter’s moons or the planet Pluto. Right now, NASA spacecraft are launched by a burst of chemical rockets that burn for a few minutes to break away from Earth’s gravity. After that, said Weiler, the spacecraft must drift across deep space toward their target or whip around nearby planets to gain speed, voyages that can take years. The spacecraft, in most cases, are powered by solar cells that convert sunlight to electricity. For distant planets, the sunlight often is so dim that there is little electricity for instruments. He envisions rockets that use nuclear fission or fusion that could fire for months, driving the spacecraft to higher and higher speeds, and then slowing the spacecraft when it approaches its target. Such a technique could possibly halve the time of a 17-year voyage to Pluto, the only solar system planet not yet visited.

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- posted by Alex @ 23:03 EST