Russia to Leapfrog Elon Musk’s “Old Tech” with Nuclear Engines, Expert Says

Artist conception of Russian nulcear engine. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Russia plans to leapfrog Elon Musk’s “old tech” by developing nuclear-powered engines that will make human missions to Mars faster and safer for crews, the head of a research center told Russian media.

“Elon Musk is using the existing tech, developed a long time ago,” said Vladimir Koshlakov, head of the Keldysh Research Center. “He is a businessman; he took a solution that was already there, and applied it successfully. Notably, he is also doing his work with help from the government.”

Keldysh is working on a nuclear engines that will make human exploration of the Red Planet feasible within the near future, he added. The engines will allow cosmonauts to make the voyage in seven months.

“A person should not spend more than a year or two in space. Nuclear-powered spacecraft will allow a relatively fast journey, and, most importantly, a return flight. This technology has special significance for interplanetary flights and research of far planets,” Koshlakov said.

The Keldysh center has successfully conducted the first ground test of the nuclear engine’s cooling system, he added.

Sources:

‘Unlike us, Elon Musk is using old tech’: Russia shows off reusable NUKE ENGINE for Mars mission
https://www.rt.com/news/443889-mars-nuclear-reusable-russian-rocket/amp/

Senior designer outlines future of Russia’s space industry
http://tass.com/science/1030739

Roscosmos shows image of future nuclear-powered spacecraft
http://tass.com/science/1030596

  • mattmcc80

    I’m pretty sure if one were to accumulate all Russia’s space achievement claims, they’re colonizing Europa next year. Roscosmos employs almost as much hyperbole as the current US president.

  • passinglurker

    Nuclear systems with russia’s quality control track record for both launch and deep space? No thanks

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    They don’t have the budget to compete with SpaceX on a conventional launch vehicle. This is a farce.

  • Bernardo Senna

    Both Europas.

  • Lee

    “Notably, he is also doing his work with help from the government.”

    Umm, yeah, like everything in the Russian space program isn’t hugely subsidized by the government… Pot. Kettle. Black.

  • Jay Jay

    very droll

    🙂

  • ThomasLMatula

    The probably just found the old NERVA film NASA did in the 60’s YouTube and decided to copy the idea. But given their track record on nuclear submarines and icebreakers you are right in the advisability of them not using nuclear power in space.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    They really don’t have the recent track record to make that kind of claim. Why go after Musk? They must view him as the brains behind the entire U.S. space effort – both public and private. Honestly, though, whomever can make a sustainable propulsion breakthrough will be leading the technology pack – at least for now.

  • AdmBenson

    The SpaceX plan for Mars is dependent on ISRU to refuel the BFR for the return trip to Earth. This implies that you must successfully land on Mars to get back home. Another option is to accompany BFR with one-way tankers to refuel it in Mars orbit, but this would be a very expensive mission architecture.

    You can avoid a lot of those problems with nuclear engines since they are at least twice as efficient as chemical ones, are monopropellant, and can generate huge amounts of electrical power. Landing is not a necessity since they are capable of carrying enough LH2 to make a round trip. These attributes also make nuclear engines superior for asteroid missions.

    The big problem with nuclear engines is that the development costs and risks are so high that only governments can afford to build them in 2018. The US has a plan for nuclear spacecraft (google “copernicus b mav) very similar to the Russian and Chinese ones ( https://amp.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2120425/chinas-nuclear-spaceships-will-be-mining-asteroids ). My guess is that the US will have to follow through with their plan if Russia and/or China follow through with theirs.

  • Obediah Headstrong

    Leapfrogging Russians is something I want to see. It will take a while though. Thirty years?

  • nathankoren

    If SpaceX goads the world into developing interplanetary nuclear propulsion, that is no bad thing. At this point I’m dubious of Russia’s ability to deliver this, but it might inspire other more credible actors to develop the tech.

  • Pete Zaitcev

    So this is why Putin is trying to take over the Central African Republic and its reserves of Uranium. I see, I see.

  • passinglurker

    Surprisingly the proposed and panned DSG/DST architecture avoids both of these downsides. Solar electric propulsion shoving off from high lunar orbit can get to mars and back on a single tank without radioactive materials and leveraging the same tech used for electric commsats simply scaled up.

  • AdmBenson

    Solar electric could work, but it’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight if the Russkies/Chinese have nukes. They’ll be able to put much more mass downrange with the greater power density available to them. Greater mass equates to bigger crews and/or faster transit times.

  • passinglurker

    I think power density is over blown a thermal rocket has a much shorter service life that calls the viability of reusability into question, and even if that were over come it wouldn’t have the sheer efficiency of electric propulsion which does miracles for the mass and volume of the propulsion system(basically launched from identical rockets the sep system would be able to tug more in a single trip), and if they did nuclear electric modern solar would actually have the power density advantage due to the radiator mass of the nuclear system until you are much further out than mars.

    Nuclear might make sense for Russia because of nuclear systems is one of their big domestic industries but for the parts of the world that have moved on from the cold war you will find that solar or some sort of chem/solar hybrid would be more practical in every way but transit time. At which point you have to ask if the cost and radiation of nuclear is really worth it?

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Not only are the development costs of a nuclear engine high, the U.S. government will of necessity keep a very tight reign on access to nuclear materials.

  • duheagle

    Nuclear thermal rockets are not equivalent to nuclear electrical power reactors just because both are nuclear. How would NERVA, for example, have generated “huge amounts of electrical power?”

  • duheagle

    That would certainly be true for any designs requiring weapons-grade fissionables or even producing such as byproducts of operation. But there are fission reactor types that don’t require such, though how their cores could be adapted as nuclear thermal rockets is anything but clear. Then there is that interesting fusion reactor design being worked on at Lockheed’s Skunk Works. Absent weapons-grade fissionables in the picture, the only government interest would be in the areas of health and safety.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    An interesting problem with a nuclear engine is how you get it to space in the first place. The amount of radiation shielding necessary would require a massively-powerful engine just to escape the gravity well. That engine would most likely use most of its lifting power just to lift itself and leave little room for people or cargo. It would be far easier to assemble the engine and the spacecraft itself in LEO where components could be shuttled to the assembly site and, depending on spacecraft design, the need for shielding would be less. You could create a spacecraft which can move large amounts of people and cargo with all the advantages of nuclear propulsion.

    Of course, smaller spacecraft would have to be designed and, at least initially, carried along with the mothership to shuttle passengers and cargo to their final destinations.

  • duheagle

    I’m with the lurker on this one. Power density is less important than total mass required for the power produced. Shielding for crews cuts severely into the usefulness of all that power as it has to be dragged along. If the Chinese and Russians (Ha!) want to do nuke rockets, I say let them. Doing so will be expensive and so will getting the pieces needed into Earth orbit for assembly.

    Meanwhile, SpaceX can be cranking out BFRs and using them to launch a lot of cheap methane. The BFS can even be turned into a hybrid chemical-SEP vehicle by using some or all of those lower-deck concentric “freight lockers” as homes for SEP engines and argon tankage. BFS is supposed to generate 200 Kw of electrical power with its solar array, though I think that is an Earth-orbit value – cut it in half by the time one gets to Mars orbit. Still, it seems BFS could be usefully speeded up on its routes from Earth to Mars and back without much trouble or expense. Argon for re-tanking is readily available on Mars too.

  • duheagle

    How about zero years? As the Russians get fewer and more penurious, their propensity for building ever more elaborate and expensive castles in the air advances apace. The Russians are never going to do this. We shouldn’t either. Solar electric propulsion will eventually power most interplanetary traffic with the solar arrays on the ships eventually being replaced by rectennas to capture beamed power from solar powersats much closer to the Sun than Earth Orbit. But for now, SpaceX’s BFR will do nicely.

  • duheagle

    Baseless claims seem to be most of what remains of the once impressive Russian – actually, Soviet – space program.

    Why go after Musk? Because the Russians hate him – with an incandescent, yet impotent, fury. They mocked him when he was a geeky nouveau riche boy coder looking to buy a “hobby rocket” or two and have lived to see him rise up and take his revenge on them. Musk has single-handedly destroyed ILS and is about to end the extortionate Russian cash flow deriving from their monopoly on ISS crew ferry service. All Russia has left of its formerly formidable foreign-derived space revenues is what it makes selling Soyuzes to the French and engines to ULA and NGIS. The two U.S.-based revenue streams will end in four more years and whenever ISS is decommissioned, respectively. The Soyuz sales to France are sunsetted also, probably when the twin-SRB version of Ariane 6 enters service. Musk is largely responsible for these losses too. Musk has been a one-man Mongol Horde anent the Russian space program. He lays it waste, then comes back again and again to lather, rinse and repeat. Musk is a creature of nearly supernatural dread in Russian space circles.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    They probably have all the work that was done on Timberwind. Likely if it was fed to their old nuclear physics community, it was improved upon.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Yeah for ground launch fission does not make much sense. All one has to do is compute the neutron flux from a fission reactor at the gigawatt level. It’s bad. Really bad. I’ll take the sci-fi of BFR more seriously than a heavy lift fission booster any day. Nuclear thermal makes sense for upper stages because the power requirements are much lower and for space only, the power requirements are even more tame and shielding by distance and 1/r^2 relationships start to look really good. But high thrust, ultra high power fission propulsion on par with a Saturn class booster? You’ll need something like Orion because it comes with it’s own high mass.

  • passinglurker

    There are proposals for bi-modal designs that would be able to enter a stand-by mode and generate power, but they are nowhere near the same level of technical readiness as just straight thermal rockets(which themselves are still not ready for primetime). Still something to keep in mind for jovian moon probes and such…

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    By the time New Glenn is operational the Russians are going to be proposing their new launch system based on their new “Gospodin Fusion” power pack. The tagline will be, “Pads? when when we’re operational we won’t need …. Pads!”.

  • passinglurker

    Chem-SEP BFS may be a bit optimistic tradidional DST proposals are highly vacuum optimized and already weigh in 150Kw-300Kw just to move 4 people round trip. By comparison a 200Kw system isn’t going to do much to budge all that carbon fiber bulk. An affordable spaceX rocket would be useful for orbital assembly or kicking out of earth orbit.

  • 76 er

    Yep, Bezos and Musk make the average workaholic look like a slacker.

  • AdmBenson

    The Russian approach to the service life issue is to go Nuclear-Electric. The American approach is LANTR, where a LOX afterburner is put on the exhaust of a Nuclear-Thermal engine. I don’t know what technology China plans to use.

    LANTR plays to American strengths because the US is likely to have 2 private companies capable of doing lunar missions within a decade. Lunar LOX production could be outsourced to them and privately financed. No other country has this option.

  • duheagle

    Duly noted. Thanks.

  • duheagle

    My notion was that the usual burn all the chems, then coast orbit could be shortened at least a bit by use of some long-running SEP thrust, even if small. Perhaps the gain would not justify the expense of the implementation mods. Or perhaps a suitably larger and more powerful solar array could also be part of some future upgraded version of BFS. Eventually, bulk cargo to and from Mars will take slow, steady “ion-jammers” or even “solar windjammers” for the most part. People and priority cargo will boost harder on BFS and its successors.

  • duheagle

    Agreed. For ground launch, fission makes about as much sense as it did for powering aircraft – i.e., none to speak of. Taking BFR more seriously than that isn’t what you’d call a real high bar to get over.

    BFR, in any event, is far from sci-fi. The engines are done, or nearly so, and major structural elements are now being cranked out. In terms of how many large bits and pieces out of the total needed are in-hand, I think BFR will surpass SLS in six months or less. Not long after that, it’ll be assembled and ready to ship to TX.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I’ll bet SLS integration process is much further along than BFR’s. But we’ll see. 🙂 And it’s a much happier world if I’m wrong. If I’m right, we’ll talk about that later.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Except the DSG is being put in the wrong orbit. If you want to use it as a departure point for solar electric or nuclear electric rockets it should be at the EM L1 or at least a very high Earth orbit, say 5,000 km or so beyond GEO. The current DSG will be in a poor orbit for such use.

  • SamuelRoman13

    The engines will allow cosmonauts to make the voyage in seven months. Right now it takes 6 months in a good year. Musk said 1 month with BFR. It can go fast if Musk wants. They should do more research.

  • windbourne

    Cost is much lower in nuke power, even in engine.
    As to radiation, solar radiation is much worse.

  • windbourne

    No. Russia, along with the majority of the world, can see that musk’s rocket program is not just ahead of theirs, but way ahead of NASA. Right now, only BO , and maybe China, can catch up, let alone pass SpaceX.

  • windbourne

    According to shotwell, SX is working on a nuclear engine. She spoke about difficulty of obtaining nuclear material from US gov.

  • voronwae

    Russia has worked on and off on NTRs since the 1970’s – they went with tungsten cermets when we were headed toward zirconium. They should be capable if they can get their QC act together.

  • voronwae

    Russia has worked on and off on NTRs since the 1970’s – they went with tungsten cermets when we were headed toward zirconium. They should be capable if they can get their QC act together. I’d love it if they got us off our own rears.

  • voronwae

    Solar electric is fine for cargo flights, but for humans we’d want big impulse. NERVA was certified ready for orbital flight tests but shut down by the Nixon Administration to save money. The USSR continued with cermet testing long after our program shut down, and their other news releases seem to indicate they’ve gotten much further. At any rate, I hope they can spur us to get off our behinds.

  • voronwae

    NTRs are somewhat problematic in the atmosphere because of atmospheric reflection, but not in space – crew for NRX-powered missions were always going to sit with LH2 shielding between them and the reactors. NTR-powered Mars missions would require a rendezvous. As for longevity, NERVA had far better reliability and runtime than any extant chemical rockets, and would still probably compare favorably. NERVA was designed for better than 10 hours continuous and tests ran the tanks dry.

  • voronwae

    It should be pointed out that this is all published in Russia Today (rt.com), which is a Russian agit-prop outlet. That said, it’s likely there is a lot of truth to their claims, if even half of what they’ve said about their nuke-powered missiles is true. OTOH, some of what I’ve seen recently on pinch fusion indicates to me that we might be on the verge of surpassing what we accomplished with NERVA, only with fusion, on the level of a Heinleinian torch ship.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I appreciate what he has been able to accomplish and right now I would agree that he is leading the pack on innovation. While I would take anything the Russians say with a pound of salt, whoever makes a quantum leap in propulsion will go to the top of the engineering pyramid. The ability to move large numbers of people and cargo rapidly over hundreds of millions of miles or billions of miles will make recovery of the first stage of a chemical rocket a historical afterthought. There may still be a use for chemical rockets as short-distance shuttles but they are not likely going to get people beyond Mars.

  • passinglurker

    Yeah no the cost of the fuel + the cost of the safety standards for the fuel and nuclear system + the cost of security to make sure no one walks off with refined nuclear material. All in all nukes are always more expensive and you’re reading to much infowars or equivalent.

    We might need nuclear in space someday probably after they cook up some safer low enrichment reactors for the job and the demands laid out by a realistic and funded near future ground mission outsrtips what can be done with solar panels and power storage but not today and certainly not tomorrow…

  • passinglurker

    Big impulse can be accomplished by carrying a relatively small conventional chemical propulsion system to use in strategic moments such as mars capture and departure (moon capture and departure is essentially the cost of station keeping which is why the DSG/DST proposal is built in lunar orbit) the bulk of your Dv is still derived from the solar electric propulsion system.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I should hope they would make it difficult. Perhaps SX could inquire of Electric Boat or the builders of nuclear powered aircraft carriers on what the government requires before they let a company build anything larger than a RTG.

  • duheagle

    SpaceX has a lot of small R&D projects going on that they don’t talk much about.

    Shotwell is doubtless correct anent nuclear materials and the U.S. government. SpaceX by now has enough experience with the U.S. government to know having it in one’s critical path is to be avoided if possible.

    That would also suggest that the best long-term strategy anent nuclear propulsion is to go with what can be acquired both on and off Earth and to avoid anything – like highly-enriched uranium – that is a government monopoly.

    The only obvious item meeting both requirements is thorium. How one makes a practical NTR with thorium is beyond me, but perhaps not beyond the brain trust that is SpaceX.

  • passinglurker

    I’ve read some proposals there are several high lunar orbits that can do the job and offer lower escape and capture velocities than EM-L1 what the DSG is in the wrong place for is supporting lunar landings something a laurange point would probably offer more versatility towards

  • passinglurker

    Problem with LANTR is you need a significant ISRU propellant infrastructure set up before you are able to get anywhere it’s the same issue as russia presents for musk’s BFR. A decade for two private ventures mass producing LOX on the moon is ludacrisly optimistic without unheard of government support. For SEP even a single tanker full of xenon sent straight from earth will take you to mars and back round trip, and once the initial architecture is laid out we can then worry about ISRU as the program expands. First covering life support and then propellant (Argon is a nice progression and is found in mar’s atmosphere I’ve also seen proposals that use waste from the life support systems as propellant)

    As for nuclear electric as I said it’s actually inferior to modern high efficiency solar panels because as solar panels have gotten more efficient the tech for generating electricity from the heat of a reactor and rejecting the waste heat into the vacuum of space has remained static at one time it was the superior option and remains so far enough away from the sun but for going to mars its been surpassed